In conservative evangelicalism, the phrase “salt and light” can often be used as a magic elixir. Summon it at the appropriate time, and suddenly none of your parenting decisions can be questioned. Are the folks at church wondering why you let your 13 year old watch any sitcom or film they want? “I just want them to be able to be salt and light when talking about pop culture.” Feeling guilty over sending your 6 year old to the gender-bending local public school? “They will be salt and light there.” Needing to explain at Bible study why your teenage daughter is dating a future Hugh Hefner wannabe? “She can be salt and light to him!”
The reality is that many conservative Christians have a deeply flawed view of their own children. They see them as potential deep cover agents for the kingdom, carrying their unwavering beliefs and values into the nooks and crannies of culture where adults can’t fit. The temptation to think of children as just miniature versions of adults—with all the fortitude and none of the career concern—is overwhelming for many, not least because it often works. It’s one thing for a 35 year old to go door to door in the neighborhood with gospel testimony. That’s just religion. If a 7 year old does it, though…well, that’s impressive.
It turns out that the same dynamics work in secular politics too. Look no further than the eager appropriation of children as the foremost agents of critical social change. They march for their lives, prophesying with adolescent lips against the NRA and Republican Party. They likewise “lead the way” on the latest gender theory novelties. If you want the biggest media outlets to respond to your political cause, the best way to ensure it is if you have some kids you can put out in front. If a 35 year old demands gun control legislation or affirms the liquidity of his sexuality, he’s just an activist. If an elementary student does the same, she is a “generation:” nothing less than salt and light.
Child missionaries, sacred and secular alike, are a powerful force in our society. In a recent post, Alan Jacobs references Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s as documentary proof of just how far our cultural factions can go in using children as culture warriors. Beck’s book documents the hysteria and disinformation surrounding day cares and preschools in the Reagan years and the widespread manipulation of children by well-meaning (and perhaps otherwise) adults into giving false testimonies of abuse and perversion. “The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed,” Jacobs writes. “And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.”
In fact, that kind of manipulation often goes unpunished. Why? Because of the extraordinarily sensitive and volatile nature of contradicting the words of earnest-sounding children. In most cases it is simply unacceptable to contradict or argue with another person’s child when they are sincerely telling you what they think. To do so, even with great care, is tantamount to assaulting their self-esteem, erasing their sense of identity, and bullying. Of course, in most conceivable situations, the benefits of engaging a child in this kind of serious debate (unless you are a tutor) are negligible. So most clever adults learn how useful weasel words can be for escaping this situation (‘That’s very interesting, dear. I’m sure you’re right”) without having to look forward to a far more uncomfortable confrontation with an affronted parent. Predictably, many adults have now caught on to how powerfully they can leverage this dynamic in favor of their pet ideologies.
As much as I’d like to pretend that secular progressives are worse than I in the weaponizing of children, I cannot do that. Because I grew up in evangelical culture, I’ve seen the true depth and skill with which Christians can turn their children into missionaries (figuratively and literally). Don’t misunderstand me. Believers have a clear mandate to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This includes catechesis and practical discipleship. Any Christian home that is being faithful to Christ in this will feature young children who express their spiritual formation publicly. But the proper relationship between spiritual formation and public expression is one of predominantly quiet, intimate faithfulness, not of spectacle or parental expectations of super-spirituality.
For years now I have quietly cringed when I see small children at pro-life rallies holding up placards and handing out literature. I get it! The pro-life movement is about children after all. It’s indeed powerful to see young, smiling faces in a moment of advocacy for life itself. But I cringe because I sense that something is fundamentally off. I want my children’s generation of pro-life advocacy to be shaped first and foremost not be public protests or political mobilization but by the gentle joys of viewing human life the way that God does. Experiencing those joys and learning that vision takes time, and time is what children need far more than roles of leadership.
Likewise, I don’t want to commission my children to be “salt and light” in ways that demand spiritual resources that they haven’t formed yet. This is, I think, what leaves the poor taste in one’s mouth when seeing children march for gun control. Many of these kids bear no weight of responsibility toward people who are utterly dependent on them for safety and provision. Of course they don’t, they’re children! The marching youth cannot fathom the complex issues of self, family, and country-defense that make up the historical foundation of the Second Amendment. They shouldn’t be expected to, because such comprehension is adult in nature, and it is a moral abomination—the spiritual logic of Roe v Wade— to desire a democracy made up of only politically savvy citizens without the naïve and foolish children. Asking our children to become our sociopolitical guardians is the same as telling them we wish they didn’t have to exist.
It is a great hypocrisy that we as a culture decry child labor but glorify child activism. It is a greater hypocrisy that often the people of the Way do no better. Remember that to the disciples, Jesus promised the opportunity to become fishers of men. What did he say to the children? “Let them come to me.” Children belong at the feet of Jesus, not full-time out in the boats.