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Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) symposium on evangelicals and politics, pundit Mike Cromartie urged an “Augustinian sensibility” that understands boundaries between God’s and man’s kingdom.

“We can never claim to have won the culture,” warned Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Instead he suggested a more realistic approach rooted in prudence, the ability to make right decisions, understanding that ideals must be approximated and that politics are fraught with ambiguity. Competing goods must be balanced.

Cromartie also touted an evangelical appreciation of natural law, often understood historically by Protestants as common grace. Politically engaged evangelicals must have patience and persistence, understanding there’s “no end to friction and strife,” and armed with a “chastened view of politics.”

The AEI event on February 20 was called “Is the Good Book good enough? Evangelical perspectives on public policy.”

Responding to Cromartie, Tim Dalrymple of “Patheos” echoed him in warning against premature despair by evangelicals about the culture, as there are no “no final defeats.” He noted it’s “fashionable to celebrate the decline of Christendom,” ostensibly allowing the church’s return to a “pristine state.” He suggested the retreat of Christianity from public life would be “more calamitous than realized.” Dalrymple observed that economic elites “have already benefitted” from Christendom while the economically challenged are more vulnerable, especially amid collapsing family structures. He also noticed that “democracy and capitalism function better with Christian influence.” Dalrymple warned against young evangelicals’ propensity to “throw a prior generation of Christian leaders under the bus.”

Discussing evangelicals and domestic policy, Timothy Barnett of Jacksonville State University said evangelicals tend to favor free markets partly because “free will is a centerpiece of evangelical theology.” Too many look to big government to rectify economic inequality, he regretted. Market reforms are preferable to more “invasive bureaucracy.”

Ruth Melkonian-Hoover of Gordon College called white evangelicals the “most hostile” to “immigration reform,” sometimes based on “nativist tendencies,” and despite an “increasing shift by evangelical leaders.” She said some evangelical groups like Family Research Council and American Family Association have declined to join the wide coalition for “reform.” Responding to a question citing a Heritage Foundation study showing legalization of all current illegals would cost over $2 trillion, she responded that “lots of folks would heartily disagree” with that estimate.

Discussing poverty, Stephen Monsma of Calvin College noted that 11 percent of children in two parent families are poor, while 44 percent of children in single parent, female headed families are poor. Reducing poverty requires strengthening family stability, including “rethinking no fault divorce laws” and advocating abstinence education. But government is limited in what it can do and should encourage a “robust role” for civil society organizations.

One question to the domestic issues panel asked why the panel did not address same sex marriage, abortion or religious liberty. A panelist responded that many evangelicals are seeking “other issues that don’t create a culture war stance.”

As part of an international affairs panel, Zachary Calo of Valparaiso University School of Law observed that some evangelical “moral energy has relocated to the international sphere,” especially among young evangelicals. He admitted this global focus is often centered on a “certain privileged sphere of that community.” Calo urged a greater evangelical understanding of the intellectual underpinnings of human rights, with help from Catholic social thought. Secularists dominate the field, and it’s “unlikely the human rights elite is going to have a God-is-back moment.” He warned, “Anything we think is a good we [now] label a human right.”

In a final panel on engaging culture, David Ryden of Hope College observed despair among many evangelicals about the culture, amid “ongoing decline of the evangelical movement in a post Christian society.” He hoped this new social stance “might free up evangelicals to consider what being evangelical means” and “not so intent on bending society to their views.” Although young evangelicals are portrayed as less conservative, he noted surveys showing them more engaged by marriage and abortion than the environment or immigration. But he still worried of an impending “cultural capitulation” by millennials who “lack scriptural knowledge.” Ryden hoped that against encroaching threats, evangelicals would make a “central focus” the “full throated and zealous defense” of religious liberty.