As a pro-life, pro-free markets, religious liberty-promoting conservative, I've had a really bad eight years. And the Hellerstedt decision that struck down Texas' HB2 restrictions has only provided poignant and miserable punctuation to a near-decade of disappointment.
If conservatives had been told in 1980 where public policy would be in 2016, we would have declared the "culture wars" lost in toto. But the last eight years and a few Supreme Court decisions are only a symptom of a much larger issue.
The first problem is the electorate — us. It is as true now as it was to Plato that the whims of the masses incubate, insulate, install, and ultimately replace one stellar candidate with the next. Legislators, executives, and justices lead only within the confines of what they know the public will tolerate. And for those whose livelihood depends on staying within these margins (especially politicians), public whims must be constantly measured — hence the phrase "living by the polls."
Politicians are public servants for the same reason they are not prophets. A politician willing to act within his conscience and against public sentiment is remarkable and courageous — and shortly unemployed and forgotten.
The point here is not cynicism, but a proper perspective on our political leaders. Whatever we get with them is not their fault; it's ours. A liberal or progressive court is not simply a missed appointment, or four during the Clinton or Obama years — it is the outgrowth of the American public's own apathetic complex of errant motives and aims.
As individuals, some of us have voted to promote an envisioned ideal while others have done so for purely pragmatic reasons. But as a public, as a national community, we have voted for the entrenchment of Roe v. Wade, the installation of nationalized healthcare, the enshrinement of same-sex marriage, and the demotion of religious liberty. Control of offices and houses has switched back and forth from one election to the next, but the electorate is the same every time.
The second problem is the church — again, us. Politicians may not be prophets, but believers are (or at least should be). Our principles, our virtue, our character, our testimony, and our faith are to be the base on which we build our lives, families, relationships, careers, and messages. But the evidence indicates that we have collectively drifted or wandered from that powerful position to one so anemic that we find ourselves scrambling to remain relevant.
I sat not long ago in a room of people discussing the Texas HB2 bill where we were encouraged to use the "women's health" language in place of the typical "pro-life" descriptors when talking about the bill's purpose.* Although the underlying objective of the bill was more than admirable — reducing the number of abortions — and the goal of protecting women's health was also worthwhile, we were encouraged to substitute the language. A pro-life bill had a much better chance of being overturned by the Supreme Court than one focused on safeguarding women's health.
The trompe l'oreille made perfect sense as a strategy for coopting the opposition's language and weakening their inevitable assault on the bill. And when that assault did come it was immediate, and not in the form of legitimate legislative dialogue but highly publicized capitol-occupying protests and a media-enthralled filibuster. And it failed in that moment not because the public was overwhelmed by the moral mandate of Christianity, but because the "women's health" language barricade held in the public ear.
My complaint is not that the strategy did not hold through the Supreme Court's judgment; my lament is that believers (including me) embraced a pragmatic tactic which is, on its face, in direct opposition to our commission as believers. This pragmatic approach, in which the ends justifies the means, goes against our commission as believers to be without guile. While this rhetorical slight-of-hand may accomplish a short-term goal (which HB2 did, until it was overturned), we must ask ourselves if we can ethically justify promoting and defending something as one thing, while knowing it is really another.
Guile and subtlety are not our friends. Christianity and its values are not designed or intended to be violently or surreptitiously imposed. John the Baptist's head does not end up on a charger because he found the most winsome vocabulary for his message to Herod.
Many would argue that without a better approach, we cannot win in our culture. While it may surprise some, I completely agree. Here we should remember a fundamental of our faith: Faith itself. As believers (literally, "faith-ers") we choose our actions based not on their outcome, but on our confidence that wherever God leads is the right and best place for us to go. It would be better for us to hold to our convictional ground and trust God with the results than to devise a better way on our own in order to get the results we want — even when the results would, in our eyes, be better for the cause of Christianity.
Obedience is our job. Results are His. That's what faith is. As Peter taught the Christian wives of unbelievers in his first epistle, the testimony of our faith is our most attractive element. I fear sometimes that we may have played in the unbelievers' yard for so long that we lost the scent of our own.
So where do we go from here? Back to faith. Back to transparency. And, sadly, back to a world where we cannot presume a friendly hearing just because the words we pronounce are true and right. It will likely take a full generation for the impact of that genuine faith and practice to restore in the broader culture a respect for the politically relevant and ethically essential message of Christianity. Then we won't need to finagle a precarious majority for a fleeting judgment on a transient court filled by untethered politicians. The weight and direction of public sentiment might itself actually demand that laws be reformed, lives respected, and freedoms protected. When the whole culture takes such a step forward, the next two won't be backward.