I grew up in a number of small towns in Arizona, and in 1976, America’s bicentennial year, I graduated from Flagstaff (Arizona) High School. The Vietnam War had come to a close and the Civil Rights movement had consolidated many of its gains in culture. American culture had changed in many positive ways.
At the same time, there was a growing sense that the broader influence of Christianity in culture was weakening, and it was symbolized in some ways by the publication of Francis Schaeffer’s book, How Then Should We Live. While Schaeffer’s argument was complex, I was interested in the challenge he provided to Christians: In an era that is increasingly secular, how will you live in light of your own faith convictions?
Fast forward 38 years and we are certainly in an American culture that is post-Christian, or at the very least post-Bible. The American Bible Society recently released its fourth annual report on the State of the Bible in America. The survey, conducted by the Barna Group, now finds that 1 in 5 Americans is now hostile toward the Bible – roughly double what it was four years ago. Further, those who would view the Bible in friendly terms dropped to 37 percent. I think it is safe to say that our culture has little understanding of the Bible and subsequently why Christians (a very diverse community in itself) believe the way they do.
In the great cultural debates of our day we find our communities arrayed into opposing camps. Each “side” operates under different philosophical assumptions and has little understanding of the other. Debates often lead to simple name calling as both sides fling poison arrows at the other – gay marriage, abortion rights, and other issues related to sexual minorities. The perception is that Christians rely on their commitment to tradition and the truths they believe have been conveyed in the biblical story. Secular persons rely on the advance of civilization, new emerging understandings of the human condition, and the progress of the sciences. In the end neither “side” seeks to understand the other but to isolate and dominate in order to control the public debate.
I happen to fall into the more traditional Christian camp (but also know that God asks us to pursue truth using all the tools available to us). I recognize as well that our sacred communities have become increasingly isolated on key cultural issues. The broader society does not understand our faith commitments and, in particular, our belief that the Christian must, at times, be willing to give up personal “freedom” for the sake of others and the community. We are often depicted as primitive tribalists who have held onto ancient conceptions of family and sexuality in the midst of more progressive ideas. At the same time, Christians have a history of imposing (particularly the Moral Majority) moral ideas on the broader community. Thus, as the public support for Christian commitments have shifted (gay marriage, for example), Christians find themselves the recipients of the same types of treatment doled out by the Moral Majority to the culture in the 1980s.
Is it possible, in a free society, to carve out space for people who hold vastly different convictions? Perhaps more specifically, can an increasingly secular culture find room for those who are committed to an ancient document, the Bible, and who choose to live as closely as possible to the tenets of its teachings? At the very least, is it possible to understand the “other” although each may articulate quite different views of our world?
More than 40 years ago members of our community at George Fox faced a similar challenge. The Friends community, because of its understanding of the teachings of Christ, is opposed to killing others, even in war. As a result, Vietnam was a very divisive issue in our community and in the society around us. If one was a patriot you accepted military service. If opposed then one protested the war and avoided service. For the Evangelical Friends in the Northwest, neither option was viable. A good friend of mine, Fred Gregory, conveyed to me his story . . .
“I am an early baby boomer, being born in mid-1944. I am a product of the 1960s, as I graduated from college in 1966. It was a traumatic time in American history. We were deeply engaged in the Vietnam War, or as my Vietnamese friends say, the American War. I am not just a baby boomer — I am a Quaker boomer! I was taught and later embraced the belief that to learn to kill and then practice the skill was not the Jesus way. On many other issues my family and community of faith were very conservative and fit well into the American evangelical tradition. While our faith is centered on Jesus, Friends have always been keenly aware of our responsibility to act with love and grace in the larger society, even when our commitments led us to move away from the consensus operating in the broader culture.
I was a typical college student of the day. I attended George Fox College, a small Quaker liberal arts college in Newberg, Ore. My brother was three years ahead of me at GFC. While the war in Vietnam was spooling up in the early ’60s there was little discussion, let alone protests, happening on campus. Many of our men were conscientious objectors to war because of our understanding of the teaching of Christ. We didn’t act on our commitments by openly expressing concern in public ways or through open protest. On the other hand, we deeply believed that something seriously wrong was happening halfway around the world. Popular opinion suggested to us that Vietnam was where the United States and freedom-loving people were going to stop communism from taking over the world. Opposing the war effort was a difficult position to take.
Fortunately in America, our society enabled Christians (and others) who were opposed to killing people in war to find other ways to serve their country. I benefitted from a tolerant culture that allowed me to become a Conscientious Objector (C.O.) to war in a time when opposition to the Vietnam War made one suspect in the broader community. I have to say that I was conflicted inside as I sought to find a way to live out my conviction in a way that was helpful to my own faith and practice and to others.
I knew that as soon as I graduated from college I would be drafted and have to serve two years of alternate service, in lieu of military service. I had to perform some duty that could be construed as contributing to the health and welfare of the United States.
I wanted to make a difference and not just put in time fulfilling an obligation. I was rescued from my dilemma by a wise George Fox professor, Dr. Arthur Roberts, who challenged some of us to practice our peace testimony in Vietnam in the midst of the war. I hadn’t thought of that possibility before that day. His challenge pushed me to think beyond the ordinary. In the end I volunteered to do my alternative service in Vietnam with Mennonite service community. I was not sequestered from the realities of war. War was often up close and personal, and uncertainties confronted me often. Yet, my Vietnam experience was seminal in my life development and sent me on a vocational trajectory much different than what I thought I was preparing for in my college experience.”
Religious people change slowly when they do change. Our theological and cultural commitments run deep and are part of communities whose traditions go back thousands of years. The way we create and develop our families, convey norms to our young people, and seek justice for the poor are all activities that are rooted in our understanding of the Bible – God’s revelation to people. We believe that God is active in this world.
Far too often in our current culture there is little room for difference on some important, yet deeply held perspectives and beliefs. For much of American history, Christians, in particular Evangelicals, have been at the forefront of societal reform: prison reform; the anti-slavery movement; temperance; urban social reform (Dwight Moody, the Salvation Army); and child welfare. I would suggest that our society benefitted from religious people who had a vision for personal and cultural transformation. At the same time, this is not to suggest that Christians have always been right or have not reacted in ways that hurt others. Indeed the damaging rhetoric of the Moral Majority of the 1980s had a tendency to divide people rather than create a lasting vision for a better society.
While the Vietnam War, in the end, was a deeply divisive and contentious social and political issue, there was room for some people of faith to practice their beliefs as a minority without official opposition. There were, and will always be, personal attacks, but our system of governance and civility allowed our differences to be expressed and lived out. In a similar way to the Vietnam era, our culture needs to provide today “space” for different religious communities to live out their convictions while at the same time understanding that Christians are obliged to serve others with dignity and respect.