The past decade has made one thing clear to evangelicals: the social, cultural, and political ground is shifting beneath us. We’re not “winning the day” with our vision of the good life. Although we’ve seen incremental progress on the pro-life issue, we’re experiencing consistent regression on others, such as religious liberty, human dignity, gender and sexuality, and free speech.
As we are marginalized in an increasingly pagan public square, the Old Testament offers important lessons for us. Especially prescient is the story in Daniel 3 about three Jewish men—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who are Babylonian captives under King Nebuchadnezzar.
From these mid-level government officials, we can learn four significant lessons about being faithful witnesses in a pagan public square.
1. Don’t bow to the false political gods of our day.
In Daniel 3, we learn that Nebuchadnezzar has constructed a 90-foot-high gold statue on the plain of Dura. He’s gathered government officials from across his kingdom and ordered them to worship the statue. It’s quite an event, replete with celebrity musicians and politicians from around the world. Anyone who doesn’t bend a knee to Nebuchadnezzar is threatened with fire. And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow.
Similarly, evangelicals must not submit to the false political gods that flourish and abound in the United States. How do we identify these substitute saviors in our nation? We look for anything that has been raised to a level of ultimacy that God alone occupies.
One way to gain perspective on false political gods is to identify perennial idols—such as sex, money, and power—and observe the way they shape political platforms and public policies. Another way is to identify dominant political ideologies and excavate their idolatrous underpinnings. Divorced from the corrective influence of the gospel, every ideology mislocates “evil” and then deifies some aspect of God’s creation to redeem us from that evil.
Divorced from the corrective influence of the gospel, every ideology mislocates ‘evil’ and then deifies some aspect of God’s creation to redeem us from that evil.
Classical political liberalism takes on such ideological dimensions. It elevates individual freedom and autonomy to ultimate status. This can manifest in a sort of social progressivism, because when individual autonomy is made the chief moral arbiter, norms become liable to constant change. The epitome of our societal obsession with the liberal ideology is the cliché “Follow your heart” (which is another way of saying, “I have the right to do whatever I please”). The deleterious fruits of such an attitude—elective (and frequent) abortion, embarrassingly high divorce rates, nearly complete disregard for biblical sexual mores, diminishment of religious liberty—are legion.
2. Stand strong in the face of immense social and political pressure.
Once the three Jewish nonconformists refuse to bow, a group of rival government officials arrange for them to be brought to trial in front of Nebuchadnezzar, whose initial rage soon turns into puzzlement. Nebuchadnezzar offers them another opportunity to capitulate, promising that the Jews’ God could not possibly save them from the king’s powerful hand. In response to the king, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego state that the God of Israel can in fact save them—but even if he doesn’t, they will not worship the false god.
In the United States, evangelicals will experience opposition in many forms, including corporate pressure, legal sanctions, social ostracism, and social-media flash mobs. These types of opposition will increasingly coalesce to put evangelicals under immense social, cultural, and political pressure. We therefore must remain convictional, refuse to compromise, and capitalize on every opportunity to decenter ourselves by pointing to God’s power to redeem.
3. Retain Christian composure in the heat of battle.
Nebuchadnezzar responds to the Jewish nonconformists by having them thrown into the incinerator. But rather than resisting arrest or spewing vitriol, they retain their composure as they are punished for righteous deeds.
When we’re trusting God and decentering self, we will not resort to unchristian behavior as a means of promoting Christian goals. We will not demonize, degrade, or misrepresent in order to score points. We will prioritize long-term witness over short-term political victories.
The lesson for American evangelicals is pointed, even painful. When we’re trusting God and decentering self, we will not resort to unchristian behavior as a means of promoting Christian goals. We will not demonize, degrade, or misrepresent our opponents in order to score political points. We will prioritize long-term witness over short-term political victories. We will trust God is working in and through our convictional witness, even when it seems that he is not.
4. Trust God will display his kingship through our witness.
At the end of Daniel 3, God saves the three Jewish nonconformists. After Nebuchadnezzar throws them in the fire, he notices they aren’t being consumed and that a mysterious fourth person—whose appearance was like “a son of the gods”—has joined them. Nebuchadnezzar casts aside his royal dignity, runs toward the incinerator, and invites them out of the fire. In an astonishing reversal of his position, Nebuchadnezzar praises the Jewish God, legitimizes the Jewish religion, and promotes the nonconformists.
We are called to be faithful rather than victorious, witnesses rather than winners.
Let’s be clear: American evangelicals should not conclude God will give us visible political victories in response to our witness. Sometimes God gives us visible victories; sometimes he doesn’t. We’re called to be faithful rather than victorious, witnesses rather than winners. Christ alone “wins” politically, and one day his triumphant kingdom will be made manifest. The lesson, then, is that God will work in and through our faithfulness to glorify himself.
Faithfulness in Babylon
The narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego offers the Western church an incredible vision of how to live faithfully amid social, cultural, and political idolatry. Babylon is nearer than we think.
And like the three Jewish men, God has sanctified and sent his redeemed people into the public square to proclaim with our lips and lives that another King reigns—even if the furnace around us becomes “heated seven times more” (Dan. 3:17).