Special Report

Evangelical Malaise and Determination

National Religious Broadcasters meet in Nashville.

By 2.27.14

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Over 3,700 Evangelicals gathered over the last several days in Nashville for the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) annual convo amid emerging threats in America to religious liberty and public expression of orthodox Christianity.

It was the first NRB I’ve attended since 1984 (!), when I staffed a display booth as a college intern. In those days, many prominent, politically engaged tele-evangelists were riding high, active at NRB, and, with many Evangelicals, hopeful that the Reagan presidency might coincide with spiritual renewal in America. President Reagan in fact addressed NRB that year, though regrettably I did not see his speech, which hailed the “spectacular” growth of Christian media. Many Evangelicals had only recently emerged from the Evangelical sub-culture and were clearly excited about their opportunity on a larger societal stage.

Thirty years later, much of Evangelical activism is exhausted, and many Evangelicals feel besieged in a culture many sense is increasingly hostile to traditional Christian faith and ethics. But NRB under new leadership seems determined not to retreat quietly and especially to prioritize defense of religious freedom.

“We in NRB must become to First Amendment freedoms what the NRA is to the Second!” So declared NRB’s defiant new president Jerry Johnson, former Criswell College president, to a clearly supportive and equally defiant audience.

In a later NRB session on cultural challenges to Christians, author Eric Metaxas, biographer of anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and abolitionist William Wilberforce, candidly noted: “We’re in a dark place right now.” Citing hyper political correctness’s suffocating impact on public discourse, especially on same-sex marriage, Metaxas implored Christians to speak emphatically now lest the threat grow. “If someone boldly says something it’s easier for 10 more to speak,” he said, recalling that freedom is lost incrementally, facilitated by silence.

Metaxas sternly warned against fatalistic voices that counsel passivity because divine judgment on the nation ostensibly has already begun. “Those Christians are idiots,” he said. “It’s wrong and very destructive to say God is judging America,” adding, “Christians are often theologically sloppy.”

“If you care about saving souls you can’t think that way,” Metaxas insisted. “It’s heretical. We have to care about justice.”

Regarding Christians who romanticize religious persecution when others are the victims, Metaxas sarcastically suggested, “You want suffering, Mr. Hipster Evangelical, then go to North Korea!” He declared that “religious freedom blesses people” and is “good for everybody.”

“Americans are so spoiled, we’ve had so much religious freedom, we don’t know what it is to miss it,” Metaxas exclaimed. “We take holy gifts for granted.” He lamented that Evangelicals have relied too much on politics and not enough on culture. “I believe the Lord is giving the church in America a second chance,” he concluded hopefully.

In another session on cultural engagement, Southern Baptist social witness leader Russell Moore similarly emphasized applying Gospel to culture, noting an increasingly secular or pagan culture offers the church greater opportunity for stark clarity. America increasingly looks like the world Christ and the Apostles confronted, he said, where Christianity looks “freakish” because it is so dramatically at odds with prevailing culture.

The rise of the religiously unaffiliated shows more “Americans finally are being honest about what they are,” Moore observed. He warned against “least common denominator spiritualities” and “bloodless moralism,” reminding the audience, “Jesus didn’t die for religious broadcasting industry; He died for the church.”

Thirty years ago as a teenager I witnessed Evangelicals’ ambitious optimism at NRB. Now there is grim determination to resist prevailing secular and pagan tides. Reagan’s speech to NRB in 1984 was not all sunny. He cited the Soviet threat abroad, and at home over 15 million abortions, restrictions on public prayer and religious schools, and the recent death of “Baby Doe,” a Down syndrome infant left to die in a hospital. His concluding words to NRB in 1984 merit remembrance:

If the Lord is our light, our strength, and our salvation, whom shall we fear? Of whom shall we be afraid? No matter where we live, we have a promise that can make all the difference, a promise from Jesus to soothe our sorrows, heal our hearts, and drive away our fears. He promised there will never be a dark night that does not end. Our weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. He promised if our hearts are true, His love will be as sure as sunlight. And, by dying for us, Jesus showed how far our love should be ready to go: all the way.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” I’m a little self-conscious because I know very well you all could recite that verse to me.

Helping each other, believing in Him, we need never be afraid. We will be part of something far more powerful, enduring, and good than all the forces here on Earth. We will be a part of paradise. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.