The most important political development of the 1980s was the changing role of the churches. I'm not referring to the emergence of the Religious Right and the prominence of television preachers. What I mean is how significant segments of the mainstream churches are now committed to the cause of justice and peace and, indeed, see it to be a gospel cause. That is the most hopeful change over the last decade.
Before the 1980s, most of the prophetic voices in the church were on the edges and in the margins. Christians were beginning to speak and act in new ways during the 1970s, but the heart of the churches remained relatively unchanged.
That heart was stirred in the 1980s. By the end of the decade, the nation had seen the religious community playing a major leadership role in awakening the country to the nuclear danger, in challenging U. S. government policy in Central America, and in demonstrating compassion for the hungry, the homeless, and the new flood of refugees entering the United States. The 1980s saw government attacks on the churches for that new role, and the reality of Christians under official surveillance or in prison dramatically altered the church-state relationship, which had been quite cozy for many years.
As we enter the 1990s and look toward the year 2000, the question is whether the churches will continue to move forward or retrench in reaction to conservative critics and shrinking budgets. The apocalyptic sense of crisis that dominated the early 1980s has given way to a perception of both new opportunities and real dangers. We are surrounded by breathtaking changes on the global scene, and it often appears that things are somehow getting better and growing worse at the same time. But the greatest danger we face is one of complacency.