“The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments,” wrote superstar Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller in a September 2018 op-ed for The New York Times titled “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.” Keller, who pastors a large church in New York City and has long characterized his intended approach to evangelism as “winsome,” has been critiqued by other thinkers such as James R. Wood and Aaron Renn for taking an approach that “did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square,” as Renn put it.
But last week’s announcement of a Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, a project of Keller and The Gospel Coalition, offers hope that Keller is more intentionally engaging the reality of the culture war.
Tim Keller and the ‘Neutral World’
Keller has rightly earned his place as a leader in the modern evangelical church. While I haven’t digested every book and sermon of his, I’ve gleaned wise insight on the Christian life in the numerous ones I have read and listened to.
But Keller would be the first to admit he’s not all-knowing — and the way a shrinking Western church should engage the increasingly militant culture around it is fair game for debate. Keller himself has acknowledged that his approach to evangelism and cultural engagement is not a “one size fits all” approach for every generation or society. Throughout his ministry, though, he has conveyed a wariness of political alignments (though not politics itself).
His NYT op-ed is representative of his approach to politics as a Christian — which, in modern America, means his approach to the culture war. While Keller admits that certain moral issues that have been political throughout history, such as slavery, do have necessary biblical battle lines, he offers care of the poor as an example of a political issue for which either side can find biblical reasoning. “Most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom,” he says.
Last April, Keller made a similar argument in a long Twitter thread that included this point:
I know abortion is a sin, but the Bible doesn’t tell me the best political policy to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which political or legal policies are most effective to that end. The current political parties will say that their policy most aligns morally with the Bible, but we are allowed to debate that and so our churches should not have disunity over debatable political differences!
That might have been a sound point during the Clinton administration, when you could agree on minimizing abortion and still disagree over whether the best avenue was banning it or making it “safe, legal, and rare.” But today, one of the two parties has proudly adopted a stance that encourages women to “shout your abortion,” no longer in the shameful corners of the party but in the mainstream. Last year, 219 out of 220 House Democrats voted for a radical bill that would effectively legalize abortion on demand throughout all nine months of pregnancy, wiping out state protections for the unborn. No serious person is arguing that such a stance aligns with the Bible.
The mindset Keller has expressed — that most political positions aren’t absolute spiritual battlegrounds — was accurate in yesterday’s sanctuaries (and for most of Keller’s career, considering he planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in 1989). It reflects what Renn calls the “neutral world” in what he’s dubbed the “three worlds of evangelism.” Following the pre-1990s “positive world,” in which most of Western culture looked favorably at Christianity and its values, the “neutral world” reigned until roughly a decade ago, when Western society’s attitude toward Christianity soured into a “negative world.”
In a neutral world where the most controversial political topics were tax cuts or foreign policy, the apartisan approach Keller has espoused was likely wise for the average Christian. However, American politics in the past decade has ceased to be chiefly about policies like taxes or welfare spending or even immigration — issues on which Christians can make good-faith arguments for a variety of political stances.
Fighting a Culture War in a Hostile World
Now, in Renn’s “negative world,” the political left has become the party of celebrating abortion on demand until birth; of chopping off the breasts and genitals of confused, manipulated children and ripping them from their objecting parents’ custody; of inflaming hatred based solely on the color of a person’s skin; of obliterating the nuclear family; and of inundating schoolchildren with pornographic books and the performances of cross-dressing male strippers. America’s leftist factions have used the highest office of law enforcement to terrorize a pro-life pastor, shuttered church gatherings, and continue to demand that Christians proclaiming simple truths like God’s design for marriage be excommunicated from their jobs and public discourse.
America is neck-deep in a culture war, and some of the most prolific instigators of it are in our highest political offices. Keller’s right that no political party is perfect and that Christians should not make an idol of a party or of politics in general. But unless we go the way of the early 20th-century fundamentalists, we’re going to have to meet the cultural onslaught — and some of the biggest arenas of the cultural fight have been made political. I’m sure Keller would agree that it shouldn’t be a partisan position to protect kindergarteners from being coached into sexual confusion by their teachers, but alas, that is where the political left has chosen to draw its battle lines.
With the announcement of the Keller Center, there’s hope Keller and The Gospel Coalition are catching up to what time it is. Keller’s narration in the announcement video mirrors the language of Renn’s “three worlds” almost verbatim:
We now live in a post-Christendom culture. For at least a thousand years, Western culture has been what you might call Christendom culture. Even if most people were not devout Christians, there was a positive understanding of Christianity in the culture. … The culture instilled in people a certain amount of background beliefs that the Bible assumes. … [But] now, you’re in, how do you win people to Christ in a post-Christendom era? And the church does not have any idea how to do it.
The concept of a “post-Christendom West” isn’t a new idea for Keller, who published a book three years ago titled “How to Reach the West Again.” In it, he expressed a similar point about the growing hostility of Western culture, but maintained that “When the church, in the interests of acquiring political power, aligns too much with the current age’s secular left or right, it is sapped of both spiritual power and credibility with non-Christians.”
As recently as last week, Keller criticized evangelicals who are “turning to a political project of regaining power in order to expel secular people from places of cultural influence.” While Christians should not seek out power for power’s sake, we should defend the vulnerable from the harmful lies and agendas of those in positions of cultural authority.
Jesus rejected the zealotry of those who expected him to overthrow the Roman empire, but He also denounced the faux moralism of the Pharisees, the prominent cultural leaders of the society in which he lived. That faux moralism has a parallel in today’s false gospels that actively promote sin in the name of “inclusivity” or “a woman’s right to choose” — and one of the chief avenues perpetuating those false gospels is political.
We have yet to see the Keller Center’s fruit, but we can hope it will meet the cultural and moral fights on the political battlegrounds they’ve fallen on, and not shy away from them out of fear of the appearance of political allegiances. Among other things, the Keller Center declares its mission is to assist “Pastors seeking help applying gospel truth to complex cultural issues” and “Professors, teachers, authors, and thought leaders seeking to identify and critique the contradictions and lies of modern secular culture.”
Those “complex cultural issues” have reached a point where a Christian’s perspective — one that reveres the sanctity of life, the sacred duty of rearing and protecting children, and the created purposes and differences between men and women that reflect the love Christ himself has for the church — is interpreted as not just a political view, but political extremism.
I hope Keller, whom I admire as a theologian, will use the project to boldly meet the cultural onslaught where the righteousness and redemption of Christ are so desperately needed, and the conviction of the church is so often desperately lacking. By the grace of God, such an endeavor would be a worthy one.