Thursday, April 16, 2015
As A New Election Season Approaches, Let Us Pause . . .
A case can be made for Evangelical participation in the political sphere, but only if that participation leaves Christians and Christian organizations in control of their own theological and spiritual destinies. The church, through the ages, has a dismal record as a political actor.
Mark Noll has made the case that, ironically, the history of Evangelical political participation since before the American Revolutionary war is a story of compromise of theology in pursuit of freedom. The freedom early Evangelicals sought was freedom from the restrictions of state-sanctioned religion, particularly freedom from the established Anglican Church. More and more, after the Revolution was accomplished, freedom was defined, and defended from our pulpits, in thoroughly American terms of land to be acquired (Manifest Destiny), wealth to be gained (The Gospel of Wealth), and a “peculiar institution” to be preserved.
In America’s God, Noll reveals in great detail how the largely secular revolutionaries harnessed the anti-establishmentarianism of many of the most prominent colonial pastors to buttress their own anti-British purposes. Noll and other historians of colonial America have documented how the pulpit became an instrument in the hands of the Revolution; pastors urging their young male parishioners to serve both God and country by joining local militias and assisting the Continental Army.
Noll shows how over the next 80 years the Evangelical church in America gradually lost its prophetic voice to the point that, by the end of the Civil War the most cogent theologian left standing was arguably Abraham Lincoln who, in his second inaugural address was able to articulate what no religious leader, north or south, could find the words to say. He saw that the great struggle was not the result of competing definitions of freedom but rather the justice meted out by the Divine upon both North and South for their complicity in the subjugation of an entire race of humankind.
As another political season is (regrettably) upon us . . . so soon . . . it might do the Church – both Evangelical and mainline – good to look carefully at the result of its marriage to political ideology. Both liberal and conservative Christians have been taken for a ride repeatedly throughout our history. In our current climate the Democratic Party has, for the most part taken main line Protestant, African American and some socially liberal Evangelical leaders and their followers hostage. The Republican Party has captured the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Protestants and a large share of the conservative Catholic religious community.
When we find Christians drawing distinctions between themselves, even within the same congregations, on the basis of political alignments, we have all the evidence necessary to conclude that the Church has surrendered its role as the voice of Christ in the world. Jesus, who, as far as we can read in Scripture was about as apolitical as one could be regarding the secular society of his day, gave only one criteria for inclusion in His Church: “whomever believes on me has everlasting life.” To add anything to that simple formula is, to use the Apostle Paul’s argument, the equivalent of making Christ’s sacrifice of no value.
God alone knows the content of every person’s heart. It is not the role of any individual – and seldom should it be the role of the Church – to declare another’s faith worthless because of their political associations. When we do so we harm the unity that comes only through our faith in Christ, never though our allegiance to a political party. Further, it discredits the reputation of the Church of Christ when Christians engage in slanderous attacks on each other or on various political figures.
In my nearly 80 years on the earth there have been thirteen Presidents of the United States and all of them have professed to be Christian. All the prospective candidates for our next Presidential race – every one of them – professes to be a Christian. But the range of political beliefs, lifestyle choices, and church affiliation between them is immense. How could a Christian make a conscientious choice between them based on the idea that their political stance is or isn’t a Christian one? The readiness with which Evangelical Christians endorsed Newt Gingrich (hardly a paragon of Evangelical righteousness) in the 2012 South Carolina primary, but then supported the non-Christian who defeated him to become the Republican nominee, reveals that something more was at work than religious fidelity. We need to acknowledge that, agree to make allowance for differences of political persuasion, and get on with being the kind of Christians the world will recognize “by our love.”
If you like Newt and your brother likes Hillary that may make for some interesting discussions but it should not shake the faith of either of you, nor should it keep you from lovingly embracing each other if you both claim Christ as your savior.
And finally, liking Newt does not give a Christian the right to trash Hillary, or vise versa. Remember Jesus’ final words before returning to his Heavenly Father: “You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Note that He did not say, “You will be my witnesses only when you choose to be.” We are His witnesses from the moment we put our trust in Him and declare ourselves to be His follower. From then on, every word spoken, every joke made at someone’s expense, every e-mail forwarded, every unconfirmed piece of gossip enjoyed and shared; all of it bears witness to someone about our faith in Christ – “You will be my witnesses . . .”.
Sobering, isn’t it?