Racing Toward Secularism

Americans in the 1990s are more religious than ever, according to a new Gallup poll. Amazingly, nearly one half of all adults attend church weekly. Yet, ironically, the surrounding culture is racing toward secularism at a dizzying pace. Why is it that with so many Christians we have so little clout? If we turn to history for answers, we find an amazing contrast. Some 200 years ago, during the War for Independence, only one American in six--a mere 17 percent--was a church member. Yet that 17 percent exercised a disproportionate influence on colonial life and culture. What was their secret? For the answer, we need to look to the Puritans of New England. This small band of dedicated Christians was determined to apply their faith to all areas of life. The Puritans began with a comprehensive worldview. They believed that God had created society as a unified whole: the church and the state, the private and the public, the secular and the sacred. As a result, the Puritans were concerned with building an entire culture that would glorify God. The Puritans also knew that the task of culture building requires a long-term commitment. So they focused on nurturing godly families through whom their worldview would be mediated over generations. Consider Jonathan Edwards, the Congregational pastor, scholar, and leader of the First Great Awakening. Elisabeth Dobbs, in her book about Jonathan Edwards called "Marriage to a Difficult Man", describes the remarkable legacy that he and his wife Sarah left to American society. The Edwardses reared 11 children, and by 1900 the family had 1,400 descendants. Among them were 13 college presidents; 65 professors; 100 lawyers; 30 judges; 66 physicians; and 80 prominent public officials, including 3 governors, 3 senators, and a vice president of the United States. With families of such learning and distinction, no wonder the Puritans did so much to shape the American mind and the American character. The Puritans established the first public school system in America, as well as the first college, Harvard, which served as models for education throughout the country. The Puritans also published many scholarly books and left a full written account of their thoughts and actions. Today, Boston--the home of the Puritans--remains a major publishing center. If modern evangelicals hope to leave the same powerful legacy, we must attend to the long-range task of Puritan-style culture building. Like the Puritans, we need to embrace a comprehensive Christian worldview. Like Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, we need to put a high priority on nurturing godly families. We ought to challenge our children and grandchildren to pursue callings that deeply influence the culture--to take up careers in the arts, education, law, finance, and publishing--all for the glory of God. As we wind down from a tumultuous election year, we need to remind ourselves of the limits of politics. Political action has its place, of course, but only as one part of a full-orbed Christian approach to culture. Until Christians accept that cultural challenge, the polls will continue to reflect the strange anomaly of a society with large numbers of Christians who are, culturally speaking, standing still in a country racing toward secularism.  


Chuck Colson


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