5 Realistic Expectations for American Christians in 2023
Let’s start with a pop quiz.
Q: Has the Pledge of Allegiance ever been modified?
A: Yes, the last time was in 1954 when the phrase “under God” was added.
Q: What is the motto of the United States?
A: In 1956, the U.S. Congress officially made the motto “In God We Trust.”
Q: When did the National Prayer Breakfast officially become what we know it as today?
Are you noticing the same theme as I am? In the not-too-distant past of the 1950s, white Christians felt at home in America because their faith was respected, and the church had a significant amount of cultural power. I say “white Christians” not to be controversial but to remember that in the 1950s, Black Americans didn’t have full voting rights.
Contrast the vibe of the ’50s with the recent controversies surrounding Tony Dungy and Ivan Provorov. (More on them below.) They make Christians of every race feel like they’ve been kicked out of the house. The culture that once respected their faith now ostracizes them for following Jesus.
Do we have the right expectations for what it means to be a Christian today, or are our expectations more suited for the 1950s?
Christians don’t have to be respected, much less have cultural power, to follow Jesus. Most of the Bible is written by and for Christians who were a minority in a culture that was hostile to their faith. But we do have to have the right expectations and know what parts of the Bible will best help us navigate our current cultural moment.
Before drawing on the Bible’s resources, we should ask if these two recent controversies are outliers. Is it genuinely getting harder to publicly follow Jesus or does social media just make us more aware of every instance where Christians face opposition?
Tony Dungy did what Ben Watson did without controversy in 2017: speak at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. But while Watson’s talk went all but unmentioned by the national media, the Nation’s sports journalist, Dave Zirin, all but called for NBC to part ways with the former Super Bowl coach.
Not to be outdone, National Hockey League Network hockey analyst E.J. Hradek called for Ivan Provorov to return to Russia and fight in the Ukrainian war because he attributed to his Christian faith his decision not to participate in Pride Night pregame warmups with the Philadelphia Flyers..
When Christians hear stories like this, many are outraged, claiming that the cultural values of diversity and inclusion aren’t extended to them. Others suggest Christians have a martyr complex and exaggerate the pressures they endure for following Jesus.
But it’s important to remember that what happened to Dungy and Provorov aren’t isolated events. Jason Adam, Russell Vought, Amy Coney Barrett, Barronelle Stutzman, Joe Kennedy, Jack Phillips, and Kelvin Cochran would gladly confirm that the culture often feels hostile in a way it didn’t in the ’50s. At least to white Christians.
I get that some Christians are uncomfortable using the “P” word to describe anything short of torture, imprisonment, and death. They rightly remind us that American Christians have it pretty good compared to other Christians throughout history and around the world today. But doesn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me”? Not all persecution is the same.
Persecution (or whatever you want to call it) reminds us that faithful Christians are a spiritual minority and probably always have been.
Are American Christians Living in the Promised Land or Babylon?
How we answer this question will largely determine both our expectations and our posture toward our culture. In the Promised Land, Israel was instructed to drive out their enemies, but in Babylon, they were to seek their enemy’s “peace and prosperity.” In the Promised Land, Israel had power, but in Babylon, they were at the mercy of those in power. In the Promised Land, Israel executed idolaters, but in Babylon, they only refused to personally bow down to idols.
So where do we live?
Peter answers the question when he calls Christians aliens and strangers even though they’d spent their whole life in the same country. When a person becomes a Christian, they become aliens in their homeland because now their citizenship is in heaven. Then, at the end of that same letter, Peter refers to Rome as Babylon even though Babylon was a much-reduced version of the former empire to the east. No matter where we live, according to Peter, Christians are exiles in Babylon, not powerbrokers in the Promised Land.
Expectations in Exile
American Christians are having a hard time coming to terms with their loss of respectability. Instead of insisting on a return to the halcyon days of the ’50s, it might be wiser to avail ourselves of the rich biblical resources for living as a spiritual minority in a hostile culture.
Here are five realistic expectations for American Christians living as exiles in today’s version of Babylon.
- We should expect to be misunderstood. It was clear that the Senators on the Judiciary Committee didn’t understand Amy Coney Barrett’s participation in People of Praise nor the organization’s beliefs about marriage. When you realize that most people don’t share your faith, you get more comfortable being the exotic animal at the local zoo.
Peter warns the “exiles scattered throughout the provinces” that the pagans will heap abuse on them because they don’t understand why the Christians refuse to live the same way they do (1 Peter 4:3-4).
- We should expect to live in the gray. Should Christians use preferred pronouns when meeting a trans person for the first time at church? Should a Christian attend the gay wedding of a friend, family member, or co-worker? Should a Christian voluntarily decorate a cake for an event they find morally wrong to love their neighbor?
Maybe for you, the answers are clear and obvious. For me, they’re not. I see both sides. That’s how it often is in exile. Daniel and his friends accepted new names that referenced Babylonian gods but refused to eat from the king’s table. It’s not clear to us why it was okay to do the former but not the latter. It might not have been clear to them either. They had to grow comfortable living in the gray, relying on spiritual discernment, and giving grace to Christians who decided differently.
- We should expect to draw difficult lines that we won't cross. Even in the midst of ambiguity, you have to be prepared to draw moral lines. Daniel refused the king’s food; Joseph refused to soften the message to Pharoah; Ezra refused to accept help rebuilding the temple from the people who’d stayed behind in Jerusalem, and then later refused to accept marriages outside the faith. The Bible isn’t clear that all of these were the right decisions. But you don’t get to punt on the tough choices. You have to do your best to make the right decision and then hold fast to it.
- We should expect to be put in unfair positions. It’s not right for Ivan Provorov or Jason Adam to be put in a position where they were forced to choose between being a good teammate and acting according to their conscience.
But it was also unfair of King Nebuchadnezzar to ask Daniel to tell him his dream before he interpreted it. Esther had to sleep with the king before she’d have the chance to influence him on behalf of her people. Fairness isn’t a realistic expectation in exile.
- We should expect persecution. It’s pretty obvious that Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman were set up by activists hoping to make a point. As a result, Jack has spent more time in court than making cakes, and Barronelle was forced into retirement because of a legal settlement.
Daniel’s colleagues effectively ran a sting against him too. Unable to find a legitimate reason to prevent King Darius from promoting him, they talked the king into making a law they knew Daniel wouldn’t obey. Daniel didn’t shrink back in fear but dutifully prayed as he always had and accepted the consequences.
If we will embrace our calling as exiles in a foreign land, we will find that the Bible is full of resources to equip us for the challenges we face.
What else should Christians know about living in exile? Check out our recent podcast episode to find out!
Posted by Keith Simon