We are in the midst of this every-four-year ritual where we choose a president. Among this season’s attending features are the typical, boilerplate think pieces on evangelicals and their voting patterns usually written by political reporters who parachute into church life in time for the election. Much ink has been spilled, even in this nascent campaign, about which candidates will secure the votes of evangelicals, what issues matter to them, and what it means for the future of the country.
Presidential campaigns are also time for evangelicals to engage in internal debate about their role in the public square. This year, the conversation is especially vibrant as the faithful assess their influence, especially in the wake of Obergefell (the same-sex marriage SCOTUS decision) and other cultural shifts.
Some voices, like Rod Dreher, are thinking through the much-discussed “Benedict Option,” a call for Christians to pull back and fortify cherished institutions. Others have reacted against that by arguing for continued, albeit, more theologically robust engagement. Perhaps the leading voice for this more holistic model is Russell Moore, whose book Onward is being read by many influencers.
A movement based on the Imago Dei
It remains to be seen how evangelicals’ political allegiances will adjust in a changing culture, but what is certain is an ever-expanding portfolio of issues that animate their activism. To be sure, evangelicals are still overwhelmingly pro-life. The release of the Planned Parenthood sting videos has stirred the evangelical conscience and catalyzed a renewed and energetic activism. Of course evangelicals are far from monolithic, but for many, this vocal advocacy isn’t enough. The prolife ethic is being applied to a wide range of issues, wherever the human dignity of the vulnerable is compromised.
Some observers have chalked this up as a reaction to a previous generation’s more narrow partisanship or an attempt to somehow make Christianity more palatable in a secularizing culture. However, this comprehensive pro-life vision is based on theological concerns — it is a movement based on the theology of the Imago Dei, the uniquely Christian concept that sees every human being as created in the image of God.
This explains, for instance, why many evangelicals strongly objected the demonizing of Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks. It is evangelicals, after all, who’ve been working to minister and help assimilate refugees through organizations like World Relief.
This is also why evangelicals sound a more compassionate note on issues like immigration and race. They are increasingly motivated by a Kingdom vision as described in Revelation 5 and 7 of a Heaven filled with people from every race, tribe, and tongue.
Most evangelicals see shifting racial demographics as a boon rather than a threat. What’s more, they are championing the dignity of immigrants and initiating conversations about systemic racism in American communities.
This renewed focus on human dignity explains why most evangelicals see Ebola-fighting doctors like Kent Bradley as heroes, why denominations such as The Southern Baptist Convention are deeply engaged in helping the displaced in Syria, alleviating hunger, and championing religious liberty for all faiths, not just their own. It’s why evangelicals fight human trafficking, champion the rights of women in developing countries, and push for justice against barbaric terror groups like ISIS.
Welcome to the human dignity caucus
Welcome to the human dignity caucus, where an assault on human dignity anywhere is an assault on human dignity everywhere.
Does this mean evangelicals will give up on increasingly unpopular legacy issues like religious liberty and marriage? No. In fact, it is the theology of the Imago Dei that embeds in Christians the desire to both see communities of faith free to practice their faith without government infringement and see culture liberated from the sexual revolution.
Yet even as evangelicals engage against the majority on these issues, they are increasingly using language that offers a different vision of sexuality, a heightened view of human dignity, and a civil discussion that respects the humanity of those with whom they disagree. They engage, fully understanding that the Christian gospel will always be counter-cultural.
This summer, for instance, 14,000 young pastors and church planters gathered in Nashville to plan and dream about church planting in America’s growing cities. There is a hunger, among younger seminary graduates, to be agents of gospel reconciliation to the most vulnerable.
How this will shape the 2016 presidential campaign remains to be seen. Pundits will still analyze evangelicals and try to discern their favorite candidate. What is certain, however, is that those who wish to lead this generation will have to trade their tired shibboleths and contrived talking points for language that speaks often of the one idea that increasingly animates our activism: the language of human dignity.
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