A few days ago, I was reading a newspaper article about the appearance of a well known evangelist and preacher in a particular community, the crowd it drew, and the reaction to his message. I won’t name him here. But apparently, during the course of his message, he assigned a fair portion of the blame for the “moral decline of America,” to the government. That drew the applause and praise of several of the individuals who showed up to hear him speak. He was not quoted directly, but the comments of those who heard, and approved of, what he said indicated that he not only cited government in general, but alluded to this particular administration in particular as the cause of the decline of American society.
That’s not uncommon in large or small groups of conservative Christians in this country today. There’s a litany of cliches to express the view that the genuine turn of America from its Christian roots and heritage took place in 2008, and that we are now, **sigh**, on our way to hell in a handbasket. What they mean is that they didn’t get their way politically, and they don’t really know how to deal with it. So, the worst possible thing they can think of which will result from the election of the wrong people is that the government is responsible for the moral decline of America.
First of all, the statement is inherently flawed. If the government is responsible for the moral decline of America, then it must, at some point, have been responsible for whatever level of morality previously existed, and it must also assume responsibility for restoring whatever it is that has been lost. I don’t see either of those statements as true. And the other real problem I have with this whole idea is that placing the blame anywhere except where it really belongs is a cop-out, and an excuse for not assuming responsibility for the problem yourself.
The level of morality in a culture corresponds directly to the influence of moral forces. Government is influenced by morality, not the other way around. So if the government does not reflect the level of morality that you have determined is appropriate, then there must be a problem with the influences. I’m sure that much of what you read here will sound cynical, but the fact of the matter is that the primary moral influence in our culture is the Christian church. Whining about the sad state of affairs this country is in, and uttering cliches and declarations like “let’s take America back,” is an indictment of the failure of the church to be salt and light. If this nation was founded on the belief in the teachings of Jesus and the principles of his church, then there’s been an epic failure of that institution along the way in maintaining the morality that so influenced its founding.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen much of American Christianity shift its emphasis from ministry and missions devoted to winning the lost to Christ to a political effort to push the government to legislate its moral principles and in an attempt to use the power of government to establish the legitimacy of the church, and empower it. In this process, it has balled itself up into a tight little wad, polarized itself, and rendered itself ineffective in accomplishing its Biblical mission and purpose. It has disabled the work of those within its ranks who do not subscribe to its politics, wrapped around a couple of social issues, which has minimized its effect on the bigger picture. And even after years of pouring in these resources, it is no closer to winning the stated objective now than it was decades ago when this started, if anything, with declining numbers and waning influence, it is further away from it.
Internally, the more conservative branch of the church in America is also wasting time and energy on doctrinal and denominational squabbles. It is, for the most part, unable to unite around its Biblical mission and purpose, and instead spends more resources, time, and favorable opinion, on maintaining the divisiveness and proving the other brethren wrong. The combination of all the effort that is not directed into its mission and purpose, from a Biblical perspective, has led to a decline in number, especially among the younger generation. In fact, as you go lower in age, the percentage of individuals who claim to be Christians and are part of a church drops significantly. I believe this is due to the inability of the church, collectively, to remain committed to its mission.
Christians are gathering in larger groups. I believe this is a sign of an inward shift, not an outward one. Church becomes the place you go on Sunday morning, and for most people, that’s it. People go because they like the worship style, the format, or the preacher, choosing to be involved based on personal preferences, not out of a sense of ministry or service calling. The focus is on what happens to me, and “what I get out of it.” That sounds great, except that the church is not a place you go, it is a body to which you belong, and the focus is on how God can use us together, instead of what we can get out of it individually. The fact that so many of its members are attracted there by a product which they can consume means that there isn’t much left by which it can be salt and light, and the end result is a noticeable decline in its influence on the morality of the culture. And we blame the government for that.
Morality is one of those things that loses its identity when it becomes something other than what it is intended to be. Michael W. Smith had a popular song years back that stated, “Love isn’t love until you give it away.” Well, morality isn’t morality until it is the result of faith. That’s why, in the truest sense of the word, it can’t be legislated. Oh, people will obey the law, and practice moral principles because they are the law, but the motivation is to avoid punishment. It doesn’t become morality until it happens because we are motivated to practice it as a result of our desire to be obedient to God because of the sacrifice he made on the cross through Christ. Unless that’s the motivation, what we call “morality” is really not much more than pious legalism. And sometimes, the piety is missing.
Blaming the government won’t resolve the problem. There is no more, and really, to be honest, no less morality in our culture today than there was thirty years ago when the involvement of conservative Christians was stepped up in support of the Republican party. Three Republican Presidents and a dozen or more years of a Republican dominated Congress, along with a supportive Supreme Court did not succeed in contributing to an increase in morality, nor did it lead to a revival among the Christian church. Morality increases one soul at a time, as people are won to a saving faith in Jesus, and are discipled in his teachings while being introduced to the power of his Holy Spirit. The government is under God’s authority, and has no power, one way or the other, to either squelch a moment of the Spirit if God wills one, nor to initiate such a movement if he wills one.
Part of the whole picture of obedient Christian faith is the acknowledgement that Christians are to be good citizens, and in so doing, are positive examples of Christlikeness. Submission to the authority of the government is a specific, Biblical character trait, and I think the lack of measureable progress in morality may be directly connected to the squandering of the church’s resources on secular political influence. God doesn’t honor disobedience.