This week in his Today InPerspective podcast, Dr. Harry Reeder, pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Birmingham, Alabama, discussed the recent report from the Barna Research Group on the political behavior of evangelicals as compared to that of people from other religious perspectives. The report revealed that evangelicals seem to be the religious group least engaged in political activity in the current election cycle.
The Barna report notes the irony of the relative lack of involvement of evangelicals when they are more likely than other groups to think this year’s election is very important to the country’s future. “What makes the indifference of evangelicals even more surprising,” the Barna website states, “is the fact that they are the religious segment most likely to characterize the outcome of this year’s presidential election as ‘extremely important to the future of the United States.’ More than three-quarters (78%) classified the election in this way, compared to about half of the other faith groups.”
Dr. Reeder discusses how ironic it is that evangelicals say this, but they are the least informed of all religious (and non-religious) groups regarding the presidential candidates’ background, character, and policy positions. Evangelicals’ lack of involvement in the current presidential election cycle is notable when compared with that of other groups. For example, the percentage of evangelicals closely following the news about the 2016 presidential election is much lower than that of other groups. Evangelicals came in at 20%, “non-Christians” at 41%, “skeptics” at 36%, and Roman Catholics at 38%.
Dr. Reeder notes that it is naïve to believe, as some evangelicals have tended to do, that there are strictly political solutions to the deep spiritual and cultural problems facing America. Yet at the same time, many evangelicals are succumbing to a quietist mentality which holds that politics is “not all that important. If I am a serious Christian, what I do is just hand out tracts [which Dr. Reeder says he does and is not belittling]. Government doesn’t really matter. God’s going to use whoever’s there. . . . It really doesn’t matter. And we consign our children to a future of neo-Paganism because we’re not engaged in the way we ought to be engaged.”
He goes on to say, “As a pastor, I want to equip my people: How do you live in your family? How do you live in the state? How do you live in the church? How do you live in these three spheres?” But too many evangelicals are thinking, “It really doesn’t matter who’s in place; God will do what he wants to do. So I don’t really need to be responsible as a Christian in terms of the government.”
Dr. Reeder notes that the reason for this is a flawed view of government and the Christian’s role in it. He notes that God ordained the family, the state, and the church, and while these are separate institutions, Christians play a vital role in speaking the truth to the state and bringing a Christian worldview to bear on public life. A Christian worldview drives us to ask the question how we are to be involved in each of these spheres in the stewardship of the good gifts God has given us.
Dr. Reeder refers to this as public theology. He emphasizes the importance of Christian ministers and laity engaging in public theology. The church needs to be preaching the gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission, which is its ministry of God’s redemptive grace. But it also has a role in common grace—those spheres of life that are not specifically religious.
One of the main reasons Dr. Reeder believes evangelicals are not having an impact on public life (and I know from conversations that he is not only referring to political life, but also other professions and callings in the arts and sciences and culture) is the lack of seriousness about the Christian faith, Christian theology, and the Christian worldview. The lack of public theology and the lack of a sustained evangelical witness regarding public ethics, he states,
“. . . will never be addressed as long as we think the goal of the church is to get as many people in the worship service on Sunday through what is no longer worship but . . . an entertainment moment of self-absorption. And we think that people are then going to walk out of that service with a self-sacrificing life. No. We have perverted the message. We have perverted worship. We have done all these things that I believe undermine the Christian living a life of worship with wisdom and grace and strength and truth and compassion in their family and the church and in relationship to the state.”
His answer is “the pulpit,” which he says “has to give forth the river of redeeming grace, and equip God’s people to share the gospel, evangelize, and disciple. And we have to give forth the river of common grace,” teaching God’s people to be engaged in culture and public life.
Dr. Reeder laments the too-prevalent view among many evangelicals that “engagement in the matters of public policy and the issues of government and politics is something that is beneath the church. . . . What I try to say to people is, ‘Understand that there’s a Christian world and life view of how you’re to be engaged.’”
I encourage you to listen to this podcast. Dr. Reeder presents a helpful and practical approach to these issues. And if you want to go a little deeper, listen to Dr. Reeder’s address “The Pulpit Ministry and Public Theology in the Public Square” at last month’s Forum16 conference at Welch College, which can be found here.