Monday, August 8, 2011

How Many Christians?

How many Christians fit into a political party? None if it is Democratic. Unlimited if it is Republican.

Governor Rick Perry has staked out, at his prayer and fasting conference in Houston this week, his position as the Christian candidate-wannabe with the most sterling evangelical credentials. If his performance made you think of Pharisees praying on street corners to convince others of their righteousness, it might be because that was the purpose of the event. I do not wish to depreciate Perry’s personal piety nor that of those who attended his rally. But I believe there are more effective ways to influence the moral character of a nation than by issuing public prayers in highly publicized – and politicized – arenas. Being is always superior to claiming to be. If Perry’s prayer had been delivered at the request of his home pastor, at his home church, with no fanfare, no press releases, no photographs, no invitations for the world to attend, it would have been an admirable act of personal piety and corporate worship. As it was delivered, it became a political statement, whether he intended it to or not.

But Perry is not the only one seeking anointed status. The two Mormon candidates have, perhaps the steepest hill to climb, but if one of them should snag the nomination, the high priests of Republican political correctness will provide them with all the cover they need to be featured on slick posters distributed in the parking lots of evangelical churches as the candidate who checked all the right boxes in their surveys. Even Newt Gingrich can wring slightly qualified praise from Richard Land who appears willing to overlook, in a potential Republican nominee, past indiscretions that would get Land himself thrown out of his leadership of the Southern Baptist Conference. In my memory, there has not been a Republican nominee for President of the United States, from Tom Dewey to the present list of wannabes, who was not widely portrayed, in the evangelical community, as the Christian alternative to the spiritually flawed Democratic nominee.

I have never belonged to a political party, nor do I expect to. But I have always been distressed that the community of Christians with which I most closely identify has lent itself and its credibility to one party, and one party alone. Despite numerous disastrous endorsements both at the presidential and local levels, the practice goes on.

And it will go on in the coming months. My mailbox and e-mail in-box will be flooded with praise for candidates with the Republican label and scurrilous accusations of evil and evil intent aimed at their opponents. If those mailings are not distributed directly by Christian organizations they will, at least, be circulated by Christian friends, relatives, and church members.

When will the evangelical Christian community learn that they are being used by a political party and its candidates, for purposes only peripherally related (if at all) to the mission of the Church?

Christians need to be in the world (but not of it) living in a manner that displays the love of Christ in them. That does not, in my opinion, exclude very many occupations; it certainly does not exclude political activity. But those Christians who chose to be politically active have just as much obligation to be servants of the truth as does the average Christian merchant or worker in the community. Politics in the United States has become a no-holds-barred game of character assassination that is inconsistent with the character of Christ. Those who chose to engage in it are placing themselves in a precarious spiritual situation that few can handle without becoming tarnished themselves. Saddest of all is that, when they are tarnished, they often tarnish the name of Christ at the same time.

Do the Christians of this nation need a call to prayer and repentance? Certainly. It should issue from every evangelical (and every other) pulpit every Sunday. It would not be inappropriate for a religious leader, who is widely known and respected, to issue such a call on a national level. But, when it is linked too obviously to political purposes, and when it is linked to the fortunes of one political party, it becomes a call, not for all to repent, but only those not associated with the party issuing the call. It diminishes its witness to the Gospel of Christ. And in case some evangelicals have forgotten, that is the mission of the Church.

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