From the March 2019 issue of First Things:

We’re beholden to many false truisms. One is that our coasts are diverse places representative of the great mosaic of our country, while Middle America is boring and homogeneous. Not exactly. Echelon Insights crunched census data to come up with the 25 counties in the United States in which the mix of residents most precisely mirrors the country as a whole: race, political allegiance, income, educational level, religious affiliation, and age distribution… Douglas County, Nebraska, made the list.

…One of the irritating features of fancy-pants places like New York is the ignorant assumption that people from Omaha live in an insular, white-bread bubble. The opposite is the case. New York County (the island of Manhattan) ranks among the least typical places in the United States. In truth, an Omaha resident has immediate, everyday experience with the actual diversity of the United States, not the paradoxical hyper-diverse homogeneity of places like New York.

(this is a re-post of an essay originally written in 2012)

This weekend, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Sadly, this day has become a convenient excuse for drunkenness and debauchery instead of an opportunity to pay homage to a heroic missionary leader. So this St. Patty’s Day, drink a Guinness… but do it while prayerfully honoring one of the greatest Christian missionaries in history.

St. Patrick was born in Britain sometime in the closing years of the 4th century. We don’t know the exact date, but 390 is a decent estimate. At that time, the Roman Empire ruled most of the known world, including Britain. Patrick was born into a family which was ethnically British but culturally Roman (much like the Apostle Paul, who was ethnically Jewish but a citizen of Rome). Patrick’s father was an official in the local Roman government and a deacon in the local church.

At this early stage in church history, there was no Protestant church or Roman Catholic church; there was simply the Christian church. In fact, Christianity had only been a legal religion for 80 years, since the Edict of Milan issued by the Emperor Constantine in 313. During those 80 years, the church had been plagued by heretics and false teachers and had been split politically into Western and Eastern factions. St. Patrick’s life overlapped the lives of both Augustine (354-430), he most influential preacher in the Western church, and John Chrysostom (345-407), the most influential preacher in the East. The weight of these two theological giants is still felt today. But where Augustine and Chrysostom are known for their theological legacy, St. Patrick is known for his missional legacy. Here’s how it began.

One night when Patrick was 15 years old, a band of Irish slave raiders attacked his family’s villa and kidnapped Patrick and some other able-bodied young men. They put the captives in chains, marched them to a boat waiting on the coast, and sailed them back across the Irish Sea to be sold into slavery in Ireland.

Ireland was a wild and mysterious place, known to most Romans only through stories. The Roman author Solinus wrote around the year 200 that the Irish enjoyed “draining the blood of their slain enemies and smearing it on their own faces.” St. Jerome, in the late 360s, wrote of meeting Irish savages in Gaul who would cut the nipples off of captured enemy soldiers. These accounts are probably exaggerated; but they were all Patrick would have known, and they were undoubtedly running through his mind during that voyage across the sea. He had been stolen away from everything that was familiar, at the hands of a people he would later call “the hordes of barbarians who live at the edge of the world.”

Patrick was sold to a farmer and spent the next six years of his life – from age 15 until age 21 – as a slave, shepherding sheep (a strangely providential task for a future pastor). God used those years of hard labor to bring Patrick to saving faithin Christ. In Patrick’s own words:

It was here in Ireland that God first opened my heart, so that – even though it was a late start – I became aware of my failings and began to turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God. For he looked down on my miserable condition and had compassion for me, young and foolish as I was… Day by day I began to pray more frequently, and more and more my love of God and my faith in him and reverence for him began to increase.

One night, as Patrick lay sleeping, he had a dream. A voice told him to flee his master and return home to Britain. So a few nights later, he escaped under cover of darkness and began a 200-mile journey to the sea. He secured a spot on board a merchant ship bound for Britain and was soon reunited with his family.

Patrick had been a teenager when he was kidnapped; now he was a young man, matured by hard work and strengthened by the afflictions of slavery. He was in every way a different person than he had been.

And the world was different, too. While Patrick had been in Ireland, a world-changing event had taken place: Rome had fallen. The golden age of Rome was about to give way to the medieval age of the Anglo-Saxons. Patrick was living at a turning point in history. Little did he know that he would help to write the next chapter.

Shortly after his return to his family, Patrick had another vision while sleeping. An Irish man named Victorinus was asking him to come back to Ireland and preach. He took this vision, along with 2 others which followed, as a clear calling from God to return to Ireland as a missionary. And so he began to prepare for that vocation.

The years between Patrick’s escape from slavery and his return to Ireland are a mystery. All we know is that he eventually became a bishop, which was a rank of high honor. Historians surmise that the course of Patrick’s training followed a clearly defined pattern. He would have begun as a layman, serving within a local church. The next step would have been to become a deacon, assisting the priest with pastoral duties like visiting the sick, serving the poor, and baptizing converts. Next, he would have gained formal theological and biblical training under a bishop (there were no seminaries to attend). At whatever time the bishop considered him to be qualified, Patrick would have been ordained as a priest. This whole process of moving from layman to priest probably took the better part of a decade.

In the year 431, history tells us that Pope Celestine commissioned a man named Palladius as the first bishop to Ireland. Palladius arrived in Ireland in 431 and left shortly thereafter, because, according to one medieval writer, “the wild men of Ireland would not listen to his preaching.” Perhaps Patrick was one of the priests who accompanied Palladius on his journey; or perhaps Patrick was sent to Ireland as a replacement after Palladius left. Again, we don’t know exactly how Patrick got to Ireland. We simply know that he was finally sent there, and spent the rest of his life preaching the gospel among the Irish.

The culture of pagan Ireland was vastly different from that of Roman Britain. Britain was a Roman colony with a centralized, democratic Roman government; Ireland was a tribal society where rival kings ruled over their sovereign territories. Britain was largely Christianized; Ireland was steeped in Celtic paganism. In Britain, it would have been common for people to gather together to worship God in a local church. In Ireland, it would have been common for a tribe to offer a human sacrifice under the direction of a Druid priest in order to cast an evil curse on an enemy tribe.

Patrick engaged this unorthodox place using unorthodox methods. He regularly paid bribes to Druid tribal leaders in order to secure passage through their territory. When questioned about this practice, he defended it as a necessary measure in order to ensure the advance of the gospel. But perhaps the most unorthodox thing Patrick did was simply to STAY. He saw himself as a bond-servant, a slave to the calling God had given him. As he wrote in his Confession:

I came to Ireland to preach the good news… I have had many hard times, even to the point of being enslaved again, but I traded in my free birth for the good of others. If I am worthy, I am ready even to lay down my life willingly and without hesitation for his name. Here, in Ireland, is where I wish to live out my final days, if God will permit me.


I would love to go home to Britain and see my family… But even if I wanted to leave… I am bound by the spirit of God, who would object and condemn me. I can’t leave unfinished the work I’ve begun. Christ my master has commanded me to stay here in Ireland for the rest of my life.

It’s no accident that St. Patrick’s Day is identified with all things Irish. Within 200 years of Patrick’s arrival, Ireland was a Christian nation. One man gave his life to see a nation reached with the gospel – and today that nation still celebrates his influence.

As a fitting way of celebrating St. Patrick’s true legacy, I leave you with Patrick’s Creed: the profession of faith he taught to his Irish converts to summarize the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity.

We profess that there is no other God – there never was and there never will be. God our Father was not born, nor did he have any beginning. God himself is the beginning of all things…


And we proclaim that Jesus Christ is his son, who has been with God always, from the beginning of time and before the creation of the world – though in a way we cannot put into words. Through him everything in the universe was created, both what we can see and what is invisible. He was born as a human being and he conquered death, rising into the heavens to be with God. And God gave him power greater than any creature of the heavens or earth or under the earth, so that someday everyone will declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and God. We believe in him and we wait for him to return very soon. He will be the judge of the living and the dead, rewarding every person according to their actions.


And God has generously poured out on us his Holy Spirit as a gift and a token of immortality. This Spirit makes all faithful believers into children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.


This we proclaim. We worship one God in three parts, by the sacred name of the Trinity.

My purpose in this post is to assert that Christians should be conservatives. Or, to say it another way: that Christians who are not (political, social, cultural) conservatives are not living out the full implications of their religious principles. This essay, therefore, is sure to draw the ire of those Christians who would consider themselves “progressives.”

So, if I may call for a truce at the outset: I don’t intend this essay as a screed or a manifesto or a rant. Rather, I wish to make a sober, reasoned, and principled case for the thesis that convictional Christianity and conservatism go together – a case that welcomes critique, feedback, and disagreement of the civil and congenial sort. In the age of social media tirades, I realize this will be a tall order. But let’s try to rise above the fray together, shall we?

The question of whether we should be conservatives ultimately comes down to what we are seeking to conserve. Many young Christians fancy themselves “progressives” because they are seeking to move on from things which should, in fact, be left behind. For instance, I know a young woman who grew up in a fundamentalist church with a creepy hierarchical authority structure, a latent sexism, and a dark undercurrent of sexual sin – all of which was branded as “conservative Christianity.” When that whole mess has been labeled “conservative,” who wouldn’t want to be a progressive?

Hence, these matters are complex. The terms “conservative” and “progressive” are fraught with misunderstanding. So let’s think more deeply about these words and what they signify.

The word conservative looks backward. It envisions something which now exists, or has existed in the past, which we are seeking to conserve and protect. The word progressive necessarily looks forward. It envisions some end toward which we are progressing.

And therein lies the problem. Toward what are we progressing? Broadly speaking, modern progressives have no answer to that question. Or perhaps to be more precise: they have a thousand different and contradictory answers to that question, united only by the vague ideal of “progress.” As G.K. Chesterton wryly observed almost 100 years ago: “The word ‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative… For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.”

Chesterton puts his finger on our modern confusion: “[In past ages], men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree.” (from Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World)

To parse Chesterton’s observations another way: modern progressives agree on the verb (progress) but not on the noun (progress toward what?). And therein lies the major problem for Christians who wish to identify as “progressive.” Because the vague notion of “progress” is the only point of agreement, Christian progressives get co-opted into a whole universe of causes with which they cannot in good conscience agree. You wanted to champion and affirm women; but the Women’s March you attended also endorsed abortion on demand. You wanted to support government programs that help the poor; but your Bernie Sanders bumper sticker now has you aligned with a progressive whose vision of “progress” includes barring Christians from public office.

“But wait,” you object. “Just because I identify myself as a progressive doesn’t mean I share the viewpoints and opinions of the most radical progressives.” Well, of course you don’t, personally. But socially, you do. And to understand why, you must understand the impact of the French Revolution. (Sorry to go all history-geek on you, but this matters.)

In a recent issue of First Things (June/July 2017), former Creighton University professor R.R. Reno explains: “The French Revolution, which eventually implicated the entire West, exaggerated the importance of the political realm, deifying the modern nation-state… [and creating] an ideological atmosphere that subordinates everything to political and economic ideology.” In other words: modern progressivism exalts the nation-state. Since the French Revolution, ardent progressives have seen the state as the key agent of social change – and they’ve often seen the family and church as obstacles to a new social order.

Reno explains his own movement away from progressivism: “Although I started on the left, over time I came to see that progressivism, even the moderate progressivism of American liberalism, invariably seeks to increase the power of the state. The cultural wars of my lifetime – the war on racism, the war on sexual inequality, and the war on poverty – fell into the same pattern. The state needs to be empowered to make the world anew.”

Why is this a problem? Because the state is only one of three “necessary societies” instituted by God. The other two are the family and the church. “Now there are three necessary societies, distinct from one another and yet harmoniously combined by God, into which man is born: two, namely the family and civil society, belong to the natural order; the third, the Church, to the supernatural order” (Pope Pius XI, as quoted by Russell Hittinger in First Things, June/July 2017, p. 20).

Which brings us back to the crux of our question: why must Christians be conservative? Because Christians are duty-bound to preserve and protect the authority of the family and the church. We are called by God to “conserve” these two societies against the ever-encroaching power of the state. It’s no accident that in the book of Revelation, “the beast” symbolizes political and economic power. The nation-state is good; but the nation-state is corrupt. And left unchecked, it will always encroach upon the authority of church and family.

Some have seen the modern movements to redefine marriage, sexuality, and gender as movements toward a more just and fair society. But in reality, they are movements to enhance the power of the nation-state over the church and the family. We are “progressing” toward a society in which the nation-state is all-powerful. We are failing to conserve appropriately the power of the family and the church. And when Christians fail to conserve those God-given institutions, we fail to obey the Lord.

Therefore, Christians must be conservatives… in the broad sense. We don’t all need to agree on the marginal tax rate, or on the precise approach to health care, or on the best candidates for political office. But we must agree on the God-given authority of the family and the church – and the responsibility we have before God to respect and conserve that authority.

To put it another way: it’s an issue of the Lordship of Christ vs. the Lordship of Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, we submit to the authorities he has instituted (family, church, and state, in their right and proper proportions). If Caesar is Lord, then we bow the knee to the power of Rome.

It’s not that Christians could never be progressives. If we lived in a cultural moment marked by broad agreement on the goal and purpose of human life (progress the noun), we could champion progress the verb. In fact, Christianity itself is a kind of progressivism: because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we know the entire cosmos is progressing toward the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells.

But in the here and now, we dwell in a cultural moment fraught with confusion on the most basic questions: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be male and female? What is freedom? What is virtue? And in such a moment, Christians must be (the right kind of) conservatives.

Last week the Obama administration handed down from on high a transgender bathroom decree directing schools to allow transgendered students unrestrained access to restrooms (and locker rooms) of their choice. Last night the Omaha school board voted to approve a sweeping new sex education curriculum that adds gender identity, abortion, and emergency contraception to the list of topics students will learn about. In my opinion, these mandates place a crucial fork-in-the-road before Christian parents, Christian administrators, and Christian teachers.

Broadly speaking, education is a place where Christians have freedom of conscience. Parents are responsible before God to fulfill their God-given duty of training up a child in the way that he should go, and the Bible leaves them free to choose from various means of education. I’m thankful that within Coram Deo Church, we have families pursuing public school, private school, and homeschool options. We also have members who are educators and administrators in schools throughout the city.

However, the massive falsehoods being forced upon us in the area of human sexuality require us to ask some hard questions and to engage in some important debates about education. And that’s easier said than done. Education is an issue that many people have deep convictions about, and emotions run high. But because of the dramatic importance of the spiritual and moral formation of the next generation, I think it’s a conversation we need to wade into as graciously and courageously as possible. I have three questions I wish to put before my readers.

First, for Christian teachers and administrators: how will you steward your influence at this moment in history? If you’re a Christian teacher or administrator in the public school system, I know that mission is a driving motivation for you. You work against the grain in a system committed to secularism because you know the value of Christians serving in hard places, and you want to be “salt and light” as Jesus taught. My question is: will you see this moment as a chance for a different sort of mission? Will you see this as your Esther moment, your Daniel moment, your Moses moment? Will you use the platform, influence, and position God has given you to stand up against this dramatic, immoral, ungodly government overreach?

Second, for Christian parents who currently send their children to public schools: what is your tipping point? This is a question very helpfully posed by Andrew T Walker in an online editorial posted on May 13. Walker writes:

What actions taken by your local school will be sufficient for you to re-evaluate public education? Is having a teacher reprimand your child for his or her belief about marriage, sex, and gender acceptable? Will you allow them to be in schools where bathroom policies are based on gender identity rather than biological sex? Are you uncomfortable with a biological male having access to the restroom and locker room that your daughter uses? Not establishing a tipping point could leave your child over-exposed to environments they shouldn’t be in. Not thinking about a tipping point is irresponsible and will communicate carelessness about a child’s education and Christian formation. It is advisable that spouses have a candid conversation and establish a line in the sand.

Third, for all Christian parents: are you practicing wise financial stewardship? Christian families need to maintain freedom to change schools if necessary. As Andrew Walker points out, there may come a “tipping point” where Christians cannot in good conscience continue to send their children to local schools (and discerning that tipping point will be specific to family and school district). I fear that for many Christian parents, financial pragmatism is a driving force in educational decisions. “Well,” the logic goes, “I could spend thousands of dollars to send my kids to a Christian school, or I could send them to the local public school for free. In light of the financial strains I already have, I’ll send them to public school.” I understand the thinking. We all have limited financial resources, and private education isn’t cheap. But the education of our children is more important than the neighborhood we live in, the car we drive, and the retirement savings we accrue. Every Christian family needs to create the financial margin to make a different schooling decision if (or when) it comes to that. I have seen Christian parents skimp and save to buy a new house. I have seen Christian men start companies or switch industries to increase their earning potential. I have seen Christian moms start home-based businesses to provide additional income so they can stay home with their kids. Whatever solution you brainstorm… now, not later, is the time to figure it out. Kill debt. Increase earning. Trim expenses. Get yourself in a place of financial freedom so that your schooling decision can truly be a decision rather than a default.

Finally, for any jaded cynic out there who thinks this bathroom decree is “no big deal:” check your spiritual pulse. Maleness and femaleness are foundational to the image of God in humanity. Willful disregard of sex and gender distinctions is a massive offense against God and good sense. And a civilization that willingly misleads and confuses its children on these matters is committing cultural suicide (if you doubt that, check out this video of college students unable to explain the difference between male and female). Christian mission in these new dark ages will require a moral conviction and clarity that many of us seem reticent to display. May God awaken us from our moral slumber.

CulturalAnthropology-01Imagine you’re a hiker trying to make your way to the top of a 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies. You’ve got your gear, your pack, your energy bars, and a trail map, and you’re ready to conquer this beast and check it off your bucket list. But after ascending a few thousand feet, you begin to notice that the route on your map doesn’t quite match the path your feet are following. The contours shown on the page are quite different from the terrain around you. Where the map shows switchbacks and steep grades, you find only gentle slopes. And where you encounter steep inclines, the map shows barely any elevation change. And then you realize: you have the wrong map.

I’ve found this is exactly the plight of many church planters and Christian leaders who are ministering the gospel in post-Christian Western culture. They started out excited about Jesus and his mission. They wanted to engage the culture effectively. They had a “script” in our minds of how their conversations with non-Christians and skeptics would play out. And then they found… the conversations just weren’t happening. Their efforts weren’t bearing fruit. Despite all their enthusiasm, they were missionally ineffective.

And the reason is: they’re working with the wrong cultural map.

Cultural anthropology is a heady and academic-sounding phrase. But think of it simply as mapping our cultural moment – tracing the contours of the cultural & social milieu we inhabit. I’ve found that many leaders who are ineffective in mission have an inadequate grasp of cultural anthropology. They’re working with maps that are 30 or 40 years old. They’re still engaging the 1990s, not aware of how the “plausibility structure” has shifted under their feet.

Recently I taught a lecture for Porterbrook Omaha unpacking the insights of two key thinkers in this area: Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith. These men work in the trenches of academic philosophy, but their insights are crucial for any average Christian who wants to be a good missionary. My lecture was an attempt to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf” and give an introduction to the very profound insights of these two important Christian thinkers.

The lecture audio is available on the Resources page, and I would commend it to you as an entry point into this important conversation. As you listen, you’ll learn:

  • What it means that we live in “a secular age”
  • How the plausibility structure of Western culture has changed over the past 300 years
  • Why the concept of a “worldview” isn’t quite as helpful as the concept of a “social imaginary”
  • Why New-Atheist “subtraction stories” fit the data and make sense to many people… and yet fail to offer a full account of our reality
  • Why many Christians who grew up in fundamentalist traditions feel pulled toward Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy
  • Why offering a “Christian take on things” is the best apologetic strategy

Feel free to comment on anything you find helpful or raise questions about anything that doesn’t resonate. And for a fuller account, I commend to you the primary sources – Taylor’s “A Secular Age” and Smith’s “How (Not) To Be Secular.”