The recent debate at the Catholic University of America between Sohrab Ahmari and David French made it clear their earlier disagreement is far from settled, and there is a stark divide within the conservative movement. Most Christian conservatives agree the nation is suffering from a degree of moral and cultural decline. The pertinent question is what to do about it?
Should Christian conservatives attempt to leverage government power to reorder society to the highest good, or should they place their hopes elsewhere? A look at both ancient and recent history can help illuminate the way forward.
The Early Church Flourished Despite Oppression
Amid the immense persecution endured in its first 300 years, Christianity bloomed. Research from Baylor University professor Rodney Stark places the Christian population at 40,000 in A.D. 150, rising to 218,000 in A.D. 200, and 1.17 million by A.D. 250. At the time of Roman Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313, followers of Jesus numbered 5-7.5 million strong.
The astounding expansion of Christianity took place not only without any government support but despite terrible oppression and persecution from governments wherever Christians evangelized. From A.D. 40 to 313, more than 3,500 Christians died for their faith.
Back in A.D. 30, many who were drawn to rumors of the long-awaited Messiah expected a fiery political leader who would expel the Romans and lead the Jews to a new era of sovereignty and independence. A disappointment to radical Zealots, Jesus did not bring the sword. He brought something far greater: the transformative gospel and salvation for all who would freely believe and accept it.
In A.D. 313, Christianity was certainly emboldened by Constantine’s Edict of Milan proclamation, which granted freedom of religion to the practitioners of all faiths. Although Christianity would not become the official religion of the Roman Empire until A.D. 380, the decree began a benevolent stance toward Christians after centuries of mistreatment.
In the preceding 280 years, Christians evangelized under life-and-death conditions. They endured government persecution across the Mediterranean and Asia Minor to bring Christianity to where it could affect Constantine personally. Constantine wouldn’t have been in the position to issue the Edict of Milan without the fearless legwork of countless early evangelists.
Christians Have Won By Appealing to the Constitution
Today, there is a dire shortage of leaders willing to defend liberty and truth in office. America needs as many righteous politicians as it can get its hands on. However, the early church didn’t thrive and multiply because the apostles ran for political positions or because Christians demanded governments bend their laws to Scripture. The past 40 years of Supreme Court rulings demonstrate that much can be done to encourage virtue while respecting the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Christians have won numerous cultural victories in recent decades by appealing directly to the Constitution and liberties enshrined in our constitutional republic. As the leftist-dominated media underreports them, most of these successes are unknown to many American Christians.
The 1981 Supreme Court case Widmar v. Vincent decided that any U.S. government-provided public forum may not discriminate based on the viewpoint of those in the forum. In Widmar v. Vincent, the court ruled in favor of Cornerstone, an explicitly Christian group seeking to hold worship services containing prayer and Bible readings at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In 1993, the court’s unanimous decision in Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District ruled a district couldn’t ban an after-hours showing of a religious, child-rearing film on school premises.
Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia ruled in 1995 that the University of Virginia could not deny funding for a Christian student newspaper. The court ruled that by banning all religious viewpoints, UVA was promoting a singularly atheistic message, and by doing so, the school had violated the Christian students’ free speech rights contained in the First Amendment. Also in 1995, the court ruled in Capitol Square Review and Advisory Bd. v. Pinette that a group placing an unattended cross at a public square was private free speech and constitutionally protected.
In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Central School that banning the Good News Club Christian group from meeting at a public school’s facilities violated the group’s First Amendment rights on free speech grounds. A year later, it ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that private, religious education institutions in Ohio could take school vouchers.
Recent Supreme Court Rulings Also Offer Christians Hope
In 2012, the court held in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC that a “Ministerial Exception” ensures “the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone.” It confirmed the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses to protect a church’s right to decide how their congregations are run, free from typical employment regulations.
In 2013, the court’s Town of Greece v. Galloway decision ruled the First Amendment allowed the town of Greece, New York, to open its monthly meetings with a sectarian prayer.
Christian conservatives were understandably troubled when the court took it upon itself to redefine marriage. Yet, thankfully, Obergefell v. Hodges hasn’t forced church leaders to perform same-sex marriages against their consciences. Instead, the ensuing years have seen more victories for religious liberty and traditional values. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, and The American Legion v. American Humanist Association were all decided in favor of Christians on First Amendment grounds.
These victories were not won by strong-arming or intimidating government officials. They were won by persuasively arguing on constitutional principles and applying the values of American liberty. They were won by legal minds of God-given brilliance, working within the framework of a free society.
The same viewpoint neutrality, freedom of association, and freedom of speech laws covered by the First Amendment ensure a public library can hold a Drag Queen Story Hour or a reading of C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The same laws that ensure the Gay-Straight Alliance can meet in an open room at a public school also ensure a Catholic Bible study can meet in the same space an hour later.
On the vital subject of the sanctity of life, there is reason to be hopeful as well. Although abortion remains an indescribable travesty, U.S. abortion rates are at a historic low and have been declining since 1981.
There’s Much to Be Done, But With God, All Is Possible
The success of the Great Commission did not depend on powerful, well-placed Christians in government posts having to coerce the masses into conversion. When early church membership exploded from 7,500 to more than 6 million from A.D. 100-300, the first Christians were “only” armed with the gospel and faith that God would provide them the right words to say when they needed them — nothing more.
Governmental apparatuses or a Department of Virtue and Ethics did not make the United States moral. Throughout its history, it has been a largely virtuous nation because its people — and especially its founders — were righteous and moral to begin with.
Many Americans may have heard that John Adams once said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People.” What is often omitted, however, is the important previous line. Adams warned that “Avarice, Ambition [and] Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net.”
It’s true our nation is no longer living up to its moral underpinnings. We should under no circumstances warp the Constitution to fit misguided times. Yet Christians today won’t find the solution by using governmental force to compel virtuous conduct — especially if such decisions are motivated by spite or revenge.
It’s important to recall Aristotle’s observation that involuntary or forced actions cannot properly measure moral goodness. Choice, on the other hand, involves thought, deliberation, and freedom — the final selection of an action based on righteous intent. True virtue is a matter of choice.
Cultural decay in a nation that a plurality of Christians founded is not a sign that “weak” institutions of the state need to be hijacked and bent to heel. It’s an indictment against us. It’s a wake-up call to take seriously the charge to be salt and light in a world that has become increasingly hopeless and dark. Christians must redouble their efforts to preach God’s Word unvarnished, unabashedly, and in love.
Christian conservatives should take solace in the Supreme Court victories of the last decades, recognizing the Constitution already contains the protections and safeguards to reinvigorate and preserve a free, virtuous society. Above all, the ultimate answer lies in trusting in the convicting power of the gospel. The Jesus Christ who empowered the early church still works miracles today.