Live and Let Die: The Limits of Cultural Evangelization

“You can’t save the world.”

It’s one of my father’s favorite mantras, a lesson he sought to drive home through sheer repetition. It was his response to my mother when she lamented the home life of one of her Head Start students, to us kids when we wanted to give money to combat hunger in Africa, and to the evening news when the network reported poverty, injustice, or oppression.

As a teen, I found his arguments both logical and disheartening. I remember our discussions of famine in particular. “You have too many people living in one place and the land can no longer support them. So we send shipping containers full of food over, and they line up. What will they do when that food runs out? They’ll starve, unless we send more food. We aren’t helping them with handouts—they need to learn to feed themselves or move on, or they will continue to starve.” He shrugged. “Survival of the fittest.”

You can’t save the world.

I didn’t know the term “social Darwinism” at that time—and when I first learned it, in a college anthropology class, it was presented by biological Darwinists as a Very Bad Thing. That viewpoint resonated with me, but it was still vexing: If the origin of our species is evolution, and if, at some point, our oversized primate brains enabled us to circumvent our biological limitations via culture and technology, then isn’t cultural evolution simply the evolution of evolution? Why shouldn’t survival of the fittest still apply to societies?

Though the largely atheist or agnostic professoriate could not (or would not) articulate it, they understood what we know to be true: that regardless of the wondrous way God chose to create us, we are fundamentally different from other living things, and we cannot as easily be discarded.

Perhaps the problem, then, is hierarchical. Perhaps it is easier to sentence a culture to death then to execute its individual members. But how can you do one without the other? And could it ever be justified?

The last time I presented to this group, the topic was evangelization on the individual level, and the questions were how, when, and whom to engage. Today, with religious freedom under attack, a presidential election pending, and a state marriage amendment on the ballot, the evangelization of institutions and cultures seems like a particularly relevant topic.

In his homily at the conclusion of the recent Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Chaput expounded on Matthew 22:16-22:

When the Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus, he responds by asking for a coin. Examining it he says, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” When his enemies say “Caesar’s,” he tells them to render it to Caesar. In other words, that which bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar.

The key word in Christ’s answer is “image,” or in the Greek, eikon. Our modern meaning of “image” is weaker than the original Greek meaning. We tend to think of an image as something symbolic, like a painting or sketch. The Greek understanding includes that sense but goes much further. In the New Testament, the “image” of something shares in the nature of the thing itself.

This has consequences for our own lives because we’re made in the image and likeness of God. …Once we understand this, the impact of Christ’s response to his enemies becomes clear. Jesus isn’t being clever. He’s not offering a political commentary. He’s making a claim on every human being. He’s saying, “render unto Caesar those things that bear Caesar’s image, but more importantly, render unto God that which bears God’s image”—in other words, you and me. All of us.

There was a time not many years ago when I argued with some of you that it may be more important to support candidates who are dedicated to constitutional liberties such as religious freedom than to elect officials who will advance our specific Catholic values in public policy, and thus set a precedent for candidates who don’t share those values. Specifically, I was worried about a backlash among non-believers if our elected officials pursued a clearly Christian agenda.

Now I’m not so sure. All the strategizing, compromise, and appeasement in the world has not noticeably slowed our culture’s march to the abyss. And it is eye-opening to be reminded that this country’s concept of religious freedom has always had a distinctly Protestant flavor (although one could argue there would be no Protestantism without religious freedom, and no religious freedom without the Catholic church). Our nation’s sole Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, was unable to vote because he was “a papist”—even his status as the wealthiest man in colonies could not buy him a ballot.

As a result, devout Catholics have quite naturally banded together. I’ve heard historical St. Michael described as a Catholic town in which Protestant businesses were opened, avoided, and quickly shuttered. On a gut level, this may seem like an injustice and utterly un-American. Yet today, we have elected officials attempting to ban businesses from their communities because the franchisee (or even the company’s founder) does not believe what the official believes.

Finding this parish was providential and has transformed my faith and my family. If we do not protect our communities and preserve our Church—if we do not stand up for the interests of like-minded people—who will? At what point should Catholics take care of our own and seek first to preserve the Church and its teachings?

Archbishop Chaput’s homily continues:

Thinking about the relationship of Caesar and God, religious faith and secular authority, is important. It helps us sort through our different duties as Christians and citizens. But on a deeper level, Caesar is a creature—a creature of this world—and Christ’s message is uncompromising: We should give Caesar nothing of ourselves. Obviously we’re in the world. That means we have obligations of charity and justice to the people with whom we share it. For Christians, patriotism is a virtue. Love of country is an honorable thing. As Chesterton once said, if we build a wall between ourselves and the world, it makes little difference whether we describe ourselves as locked in or locked out.

But God has made us for more than the world. Our real home isn’t here. The point of today’s Gospel passage is not how we might calculate a fair division of goods between Caesar and God. In reality, it all belongs to God and nothing—at least nothing permanent and important—belongs to Caesar. Why? Because just as the coin bears the stamp of Caesar’s image, we bear the stamp of God’s image in baptism. We belong to God, and only to God.

I believe Archbishop Chaput sees great hope in the idea and founding ideals of America, but his words remind us that our greatest hope isn’t in this world at all. Clearly we have something here worth fighting for—Charles Carroll saw that when America was just an idea—but my questions today are the same as before: how, when, and whom to engage in this fight. I don’t have answers or practical steps; instead I have six more questions, in hopes that our deliberations can begin to identify a thoughtful approach to these issues.

Discerning the Limits to Cultural and Institutional Evangelization


✝ Are we Catholic Americans or American Catholics? Can you be both a devout Catholic and dedicated American? How does our country’s Protestant roots affect Catholics today, and what should be done about it?

✝ Can moral order be imposed or legislated? John W. Gardner once said, “America’s greatness has been the greatness of a free people who shared certain moral commitments. Freedom without moral commitment is aimless and promptly self-destructive.” In a so-called free country, is the breakdown of the moral order inevitable? Is it recoverable?

✝ Is cultural or institutional evangelization possible? Or does all evangelization and conversion happen at the personal level? If it’s not possible at the cultural level, can a nation ever be saved, or are we only slowing the descent?

✝ Can we, in good conscience, live and let die? At the end of Batman Begins, the Dark Knight tells Ra’s Al Ghul, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” To what extent must Catholics seek to preserve the Republic and its ideals versus preserving the Truth while Rome crumbles? Is America the best hope for the Catholic faith?

✝ Is actively supporting Catholic-owned businesses economic bigotry? How do we “take care of our own” without neglecting our non-Catholic neighbors?

✝ Are we ever called to electoral martyrdom? We know there are non-negotiables, but beyond those, are we ever called to lose on principle? To vote for a third-party candidate? More specifically, must we support Congresswoman Bachmann, who is a reliable vote on important issues, but whose veracity and judgment are often questionable?

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