“This type of thing only reminds the true child of God that he is a pilgrim in a strange land,” writes Cloud, a fundamentalist Baptist who runs a small publishing company in Port Huron, Mich. “We claim to believe God’s promises. Let’s act like it in the face of adversity and not be a people who wring their hands at the mere thought of trouble and what might come.”
In the days after this landmark Supreme Court decision, many conservative evangelical Christians expressed discouragement and frustration. Some said they feared for the United States. On this major issue, the religious right has suffered a serious loss.
Other evangelicals, the minority who support gay rights and marriage equality, celebrated the decision.
Evangelicals make up about a quarter of Americans. Like the country as a whole, they are divided over same-sex marriage. Opinions have notably shifted in recent years and reactions to the ruling are predictably divided. As the headline of one Iowa newspaper put it, “Ruling brings celebrations, sadness.” What is true for Iowa is true for evangelicals, too.
Many evangelicals, however, want to pursue a third option besides celebration or sadness.
In the days after the Supreme Court’s decision, these evangelicals seek to refocus. They see the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to emphasize what is really important. They are taking a moment to point people to what they believe is the core of Christianity.
Perhaps most prominently, Russell Moore, the Southern Baptists’ leading voice on political issues, took this position in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. Though he is an advocate for traditional marriage, Moore argued that Baptists should not confuse family values with the good news of Jesus Christ.
“While this decision will, I believe, ultimately hurt many people and families and civilization itself,” Moore wrote, “the gospel doesn’t need ‘family values’ to flourish. In fact, the church often thrives when it is in sharp contrast to the cultures around it.”
Moore encouraged Christians not to react with anger, but to “seek the kingdom” and “stand with the Gospel.” “This is no time for fear or outrage of politicizing,” he wrote. “We see that we are strangers and exiles in American culture.”
This can seem like it’s nothing more than a reaction to losing the culture wars. Some on the religious right are talking about a “fall back position.” But evangelicals’ reaction to last week’s Supreme Court decision also shows a deeper ambivalence many feel towards politics.
For these evangelicals, there is a sense the focus on contentious cultural conflicts has hurt Christianity. Christian witness has become political statements. Christian practice has become arguments on Facebook. While they still very much believe in cultural engagement, there is a sense that they have been doing it wrong.
Religious historians, following British historian David Bebbington, have recognized “activism” as a key component of evangelicalism, along with the centrality of the cross, the Bible and Jesus. Even before the religious right formed as a recognizable voting bloc in the 1980s, evangelical Christians were active in the public sphere, engaged in the culture, trying to make a difference.
Historian Matthew Avery Sutton has looked at how evangelical pastors raised objections to the New Deal and concerns about the rise of fascist governments in 1930s Europe. Historian Barry Hankins has shown that evangelicals were politically engaged on a number of issues in the 1920s. Evangelicals have long believed in the importance of cultural engagement, but they have also always been somewhat conflicted about what that should mean. They have frequently worried about whether a political agenda will be a distraction from the more important message that Jesus saves.
In the 19th century, the famous evangelical leader Dwight L. Moody put a lot of his energy into social projects. He helped build Chicago’s first public library and its first water fountain. After the great fire of 1871 destroyed much of the city, he refocused on preaching the need for conversion.
Billy Graham was very politically active in the 20th century, especially during Richard Nixon’s administration. He was shocked by the revelations of Nixon’s secret tape recordings in the White House, and embarrassed at how he had been used.
Perhaps for some evangelicals, the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges will have the same effect that the Nixon tapes had on Graham and the Chicago fire had on Moody.
Perhaps it will bring a shift in perspective.
In the days following the ruling, evangelicals from a variety of traditions and positions sought to offer Christians an alternative approach to cultural engagement.
Eugene Cho, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, was an example of this when he tweeted his response to the Supreme Court ruling. “Remember God is still on His throne,” he wrote the evening of the court’s decision, “and God’s invitation to humanity hasn’t changed: ‘I am the Lord your God. I love you. Repent. Follow me.'”
Nicholas Gonzales, co-founder of a small Contemporary Christian Music label, KNG Music, had a similar reaction. “No matter how discouraging the news is today,” he tweeted to his more than 39,000 followers, “we still serve the King of Kings. Don’t be discouraged, but rest assured that God is STILL in control.”
At New Manna Baptist Church in Marion, N.C., the Bible text chosen for Sunday was Luke 21:28. In the King James Version of the Bible — the only version they use at New Manna — the verse quotes Jesus saying, “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and life up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”
The church, which identifies itself as old-fashioned and fundamentalist, tweeted out the Sunday message: “No matter what, rest assured God is still on His throne. He still reigns Supreme. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
David Emery Price, a Lutheran pastor in Bentonville, Ark., also took the Supreme Court ruling as an opportunity to preach about the doctrine of justification by faith. Online, he quoted the evangelical theologian Carl F.H. Henry, emphasizing the message of salvation over any account of cultural decline. “Like yesterday and the day before,” Price wrote, God “still loves sinners.”
Erika Chambers, an evangelical photographer in Nashville, Tenn., similarly sought to use the moment to refocus Christians on God’s love. She went to a Pride parade in Nashville on Saturday with a sign that said, “Please Forgive Me. I am a Christian who has not shown love and that’s not OK.”
In a video addressed to fellow Christians, Chambers explained why she did this. “I am a Christian, and it doesn’t even have to do with whether you agree with somebody, or agree with their lifestyle,” she said in a Facebook post that has since been circulated widely. “We are just to make sure that they know that they are loved. That God loves them. That they are valued.”
These evangelicals do not all agree on everything. But they share a concern that evangelicals’ engagements with culture have led some to forget what’s most important about their faith.
They all feel the need to refocus on the core Christian message. To them, there’s something fundamentally unimportant about same-sex marriage and Supreme Court rulings. It doesn’t really matter, when compared with the fact that God reigns supreme.