Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Lethal Mix - Politics and Religion

A friend alerted me to a story printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune regarding the decision by Pastor Mac Hammond, founder of Living Word Ministries, to become an active (and I presume, paid) member of the Michelle Bachmann presidential campaign. Of course that action put him and his religious organization in jeopardy of violating IRS rules that forbid non-profit organizations from advocating for specific politicians or political movements. He runs the risk that his ministry could lose it’s tax exempt status. Serious enough, but not nearly the most serious issue his support for Bachman raises.

Pastor Hammond states that his goal in joining the Bachmann campaign is to help her win the election and turn America back to its Christian roots. Strong arguments have been made by competent scholars and historians, many of whom are sincere Christians, that there is not, nor ever has been, a “Christian America” to which we could turn back. While the dominant religion espoused by the American populous has always been Christianity, it has never been the case that the founding documents (The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) or the resulting government was Christian in any sense of the word. Of course, with the majority of those serving the nation owning their allegiance to some form of the Christian faith it has been inevitable and not inappropriate that the Christian character of the culture would be reflected in the laws and mores of the nation and society. But that is a far different thing than having our founding documents proclaim the nation a Christian entity. Indeed, the first amendment explicitly forbids the government from doing that.

Two excellent books, address this issue: one by the Evangelical Christian historian Mark Noll, America’s God, and the other by the Episcopal Christian Historian and former Editor of News Week Magazine, Jon Meacham, America’s Gospel. Noll’s extensive history of the theological evolution in America covers the period from the first settlements to the Civil War. Very briefly, his contention is that the ideals of the Revolution infiltrated the churches, eventually altering their theology and leading to an affirmation of democratic republican principals, not just for the nation but for the church as well. In other words, the church’s alliance with the revolutionaries of the colonial era assisted the revolution but it also revolutionized the churches’ theology. By the time of the Civil War, Noll contends, the church – both north and south – had been so co-opted by the political culture of their region that they were unable to provide the prophetic critique needed to understand the conflict in theological terms. Only President Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, is able to frame the conflict within a Judeo-Christian theological worldview.

Meacham’s book demonstrates that the founding fathers, most of whom had a personal commitment to some form of Christianity, nonetheless were, in Meacham’s opinion, wise enough to know that no one religion should be given preference over the others. But we were, even then, a very religious people, mostly Protestant Christian, but also including Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and of course, African religious influences. Such religious commitment needed a public expression, Meacham says, and so our Founding Fathers, beginning with the Declaration of Independence, invented language to express a belief in “Nature’s God”, “Providence”, or the “Creator” as that document identified him. Each faith could hear their god’s name in those generalized terms. And thus was established, “America’s Religion.” Politicians from George Washington to Barack Obama have used that language to affirm the beliefs of all theistic citizens without endorsing a particular faith, not even their own. America’s Gospel is that all are free to worship their God as they wish, to openly profess their belief or non-belief, as they wish, to proselytize for it, but not to coerce belief from any who will not willingly profess it. Meacham quotes the NIV version of Micah 4:5 “All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.”

Pastor Hammond undoubtedly feels that the goal of “brining America back to God” is a worthy one, and I would agree that it is. But it is not something that he can do. Nor is it something that Michelle Bachmann or any other politician can do. Jesus said that only the Holy Spirit of God can bring people to the Father. Pastor Hammond’s job, in light of Jesus’ words, is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to use that Gospel to draw men and women to the Father.

A large part of the Evangelical Christian church has lost its soul by its embrace of the political culture of our day. Perhaps it is the culmination of the process that Noll describes in his book, America’s God. America’s god, for those Evangelicals who have bought into the current Conservative Christian movement, is indistinguishable from the politics of the Tea Party and the Conservative wing of the Republican Party. It is a sad, and often inconsistent, blend of flag-waving patriotism, militaristic jingoism, and anti-authoritarianism.

In the Minneapolis Star Tribune article one of Pastor Hammond’s parishioners bravely spoke out against what he is doing. Her words serve well to express what needs to be said to those who believe that the Gospel of Christ is no different than the platform of a political party.

Norma Chappell, who attends Hammond's church, said she was put off by Hammond's remarks about Bachmann during his sermon.

"I don't want to know his politics," she said. "When you read the Bible, it was politics that killed Jesus. They killed him because of politics. And politics is dividing people now. We're supposed to be united as a people who represent Christ."

Well said, Norma. We need more prophetic voices like yours within the church.

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