Mike Cope's blog

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Powerful piece by Tom Sine (from theooze.com) about the politics of polarization. My interest is in Christians learning to disagree without condemning one another, realizing that there is something that is a common bond holding them together. Some Christ-loving Christians will be voting for George Bush while others will be voting for John Kerry. But they should be united in this: that the faithful proclamation and living out of the gospel (rather than the agenda of one nation or one political party) is the great hope for our world. When Jimmy Carter--a committed evangelical Christian and a Democrat--was elected the 39th president of the United States, he received enthusiastic support from both mainline Protestants and fellow evangelicals. This was possible because, in 1976, neither church nor society was divided by the culture wars that so polarize America today as it races toward the 2004 elections. American evangelicalism was a very different movement in the ’70s than it is today. Evangelicals were roughly 50 percent Republican and 50 percent Democrat, and most believed that you changed society through preaching and demonstrating the gospel of Christ--not through political activism. While mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were actively lobbying for political change, the National Association of Evangelicals spoke out only occasionally on political issues. What has caused the character of American evangelicalism to change so drastically over the past 30 years? “The religion gap is fast becoming the country’s widest political division,” Knight Ridder correspondent Steven Thomma stated in an April 8, 2004, article. “Those who regularly attend religious services vote Republican by a 2-1 ratio, and those who don’t [attend religious services] vote Democratic by the same margin.” In the past 20 years there has been a huge migration of evangelicals not only into the Republican Party but into the most conservative wing of the party. What has brought about this migration and more importantly the conversion of most American evangelicals to a very politically conservative world view? When Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye co-founded the Moral Majority in 1980, they successfully began to convince evangelicals to attempt to take back America around a very conservative political agenda. After the Moral Majority folded its tent 1989, the Christian Coalition and groups like Concerned Women for America took up the task of radicalizing evangelicals around a conservative ideology. They, too, have been very successful. In the early seventies abortion was a non-issue for evangelicals. The Catholics lobbied alone. As the religious right took leadership abortion went from being a non-issue for evangelicals, and one that was rarely mentioned in Christian media, to virtually the only issue that matters. Leaders on the religious right, like James Dobson, elevated it to the Christian issue. It became the issue that moved American evangelicals from non-engagement politically to a very high level of political engagement that included protests and acts of civil disobedience. In 1996 I wrote an article for the Herald of Holiness reminding evangelicals that Scripture teaches that the primary way we should seek to change society is through sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and deed ministry. I argued that seeking to change society politically should be a secondary approach. I have never received more angry responses to any other article I have written. Readers apparently have been persuaded by leaders of the religious right to view conservative political action as the primary way Christians should seek to change society. Battling abortion was not only the issue that ignited this new level of evangelical political activism, but it became the litmus-test issue to decide which political party to support. Since the Democratic Party was pro-choice, by default the Republican Party became God’s party. I am convinced that the elevation of abortion to the overarching issue of Christian social responsibility has directly contributed to this enormous migration of evangelicals into the folds of the Republican Party. While American evangelicals consider themselves ardently pro-life, I have found enormous resistance to following our Catholic friends in embracing a consistent-life ethic that includes issues like AIDS, hunger, and violence. When I spoke on Christian radio in Colorado Springs and suggested that abortion wasn’t the only pro-life issue, listeners expressed outraged. I argued that 25,000 children dying every day from malnutrition made world hunger a pro-life issue, too. I pointed out that our affluent lifestyles in North America directly contributes to this tragic loss of innocent life. Most of the evangelicals we work with in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are also concerned about abortion, but they haven’t made it their predominant cause or used it to select a political party. Rather they have joined Catholics in promoting a consistent-life ethic, lobbying against world hunger, land mines targeting non-combatants, and the proliferation of guns, and lobbying for the care of creation. They also lobby much more aggressively for justice issues. Scripture has so much to say about God’s concern for the poor, but one rarely hears any mention by most American evangelical leaders about social justice. In fact, leaders on the religious right often favor tax policies that benefit the wealthiest Americans while cutting social programs to our poorest neighbors. There is another reason for this enormous migration of American evangelicals into the Republican Party. In Battle for the Mind (Fleming H. Revel), published in 1979, Tim LaHaye presented an extremely polarizing notion of what has gone wrong in society. Without any evidence, he argued that a small group of secular humanists had already taken over our public schools, universities, and all the major communications networks. He insisted that this conspiratorial elite is intent on collectivizing us into a Godless one-world gulag. This, of course, is the political sub-text of the popular Left Behind series. Plus this insistence that that secular humanists have taken over public schools has undoubtedly led towards the growing evangelical animosity towards public education and the recent call by the Southern Baptist Convention for Christians to take their children out of public schools. As I mentioned in the last issue of PRISM, nowhere else in the world have I ever heard evangelicals spouting the mantra common on Christian radio in America that a “sinister elite of secular humanists, liberals, and feminists in Washington, D.C., are out to destroy the Christian family, take away our liberties, take away our guns, and get us ready for a one-world socialist takeover.” This type of polarizing analysis makes of those on the other end of the political spectrum cosmic enemies instead of just people with whom the religious right disagrees with politically. Listen to the fearful warnings of one Presbyterian pastor in Portland, Oregon, who has obviously embraced this conspiratorial fiction: “Western European socialists and their American supporters want to dominate the world as much as militant Muslims want Islam to. Their vehicles are the United Nations, the European Union, and international institutions such as the International Court.”This kind of fear mongering has not only been remarkably effective at galvanizing evangelicals around a very conservative political agenda but it also makes an evangelical voting for a Democratic candidate an unthinkable possibility as we approach the 2004 election. So how should Christians who do not subscribe to either this very conspiratorial view of what has gone wrong or a very politically conservative advocacy seek to have a Christian influence in the complex world in which we live? Let me outline one proposal to begin taking back American evangelicalism around a biblical agenda that transcends the deep polarizations of our culture wars. I propose that ESA host an international conference with the National Association of Evangelicals and the 33 Evangelical Alliances from a host of other countries, including Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. I suggest that evangelical scholars be invited to work with these other evangelical leaders to (1) provide a new biblically informed analysis of what has gone wrong in society to replace the highly politicized secular-humanist critique; (2) offer a new biblically shaped view of Christian social responsibility of compassion that not only transcends right and left but also transcends the self-interested agendas of modern nations, including the United States; and (3) challenge all those of Christian faith to set aside the politics of polarization and address the urgent and difficult issues facing our nation and our world with humility and in the spirit of the reconciling Christ.

7 Comments:

  • I feel too often we are preparing to live an eternity here on earth rather than preparing ourselves and others for eternity. I don't believe we are ever promised a Christian utopia here on earth. As long as the kingdom has not fully come we will have all the issues you named and more. Today it may be abortion, but who knows in 50 years. If we just concentrated on being light in a dark world I believe we will influence far more than being political activists. Thats about as phillosophical as I'm capable of!

    By Blogger Brian Hudspeth, at 10/16/2004 11:51:00 PM  

  • This reminded me of a comment made by a pastor/teacher in San Diego, "Let us NOT fall into the trap of letting our politics define our Christianity."

    I fear that is exactly what we [Christianity] have done. As a result, imho, we have besmirched the name of our LORD, we have brought disrespect and irrepute to Him through our anti-homosexual shoutings and rantings - by sticking our hands in God's pockets judging others regarding other 'public' sins, such as abortion, being especially harsh with those that have not the Holy Spirit to aid and guide them.

    If I remember correctly, God did not tell us to go out and CHANGE our governments, rather we are told to be obedient to the laws of the land, giving unto the government that which is the government's and unto God that which is His. This to me would include being a good steward of the freedoms God has granted me in this country by becoming well-informed, making prayerful decisions about voting, and then doing so. Once done, to accept that God is in charge of all governments, but even more personally, He is my Heavenly Father and is going to take care of me, whether that care be earthly or/& heavenly. This is particularly challenging to me. I'm a politics and news junkie - as such, this admonition should be written on every wall in my house to remind me of its truth. :)

    IIRC, He has called us to bring hope to the lost, to reach out to individuals, feeding, clothing, sheltering them - all the while, teaching them the Good News of the Messiah. IMHO, if we would just be about God's work the way HE has outlined it for us, the problems of abortion, murder, thievery, character assassination, et al might all be solved through the Gift of His Holy Spirit working in the lives of individuals.

    It always comes back to Jesus' words and commandmnents. Love one another, and through that love, the world will know you are mine. Care for the poor, be they of spirit or tangible assets. Make disciples, and teach them all He's commanded us.

    Of course abortion breaks my heart, but we cannot continue to give the impression that we consider abortion one of our tacit "unforgiveable sins," along with homosexuality, as well as that of holding to any political stance other than our own. The church, for instance imho, really needs to be reaching out to women that feel they must consider abortion as an alternative, teaching, encouraging them to look at other solutions, as well as embracing those that have already done so, helping them heal in the love of the LORD and His forgiveness.

    We in the United States often forget that we are NOT the home of the 12 Tribes of Israel, that the USofA is NOT Israel and that Jerusalem is not located in the North American continent. Our only claim to fame as God's 'chosen people' is as co-heirs with Jesus, as followers of Him, not because of our earthly birth as Americans.

    Mike, to me, this statement says it all, [with one very small edit. :) ] "...that the faithful proclamation and living out of the gospel (rather than the agenda of one nation or one political party) is the [ONLY] great hope for our world.

    May I repeat! You simply have GOT to stop this - making me think and stretch so much! ;) Seriously though, bless you for prodding me out of any dusty old ruts I hang onto in my spiritual life!

    By Blogger Kathy, at 10/17/2004 05:17:00 PM  

  • I'm afraid that the equine has departed the agribusiness storage enclosure on this issue, though I agree with what Tom calls for. It's just a few years too late.

    So many voters now are one-issue or two-issue voters now. People of our nation can't afford to vote for a candidate based on his/her views on just one or two issues.

    And to those who ardently defend the "right" of Christians to attempt to seize majority influence through politics: How would you feel as an American if people dedicated to Islam, Buddhism, or any other belief system attempted the same thing?

    Did Christ come to rule Rome? Or did He come knowing that Rome could not stand against the kingdom of heaven in the hearts of Christians willing to be crucified, impaled, and burned as living torches?

    Are we so sure of our "rightness" on issues not even mentioned by Christ that we dare make them law in His name?

    By Blogger Keith Brenton, at 10/17/2004 06:55:00 PM  

  • It's always amazed me that we as Christians are so concerned with creating a Christian government. One thing that comes to mind again and again when I read my Bible is that God has cared little in the past for enforcing his laws, demands and decrees on those whose hearts are not his.

    We cannot make this a "Christian nation" by legislation. The only way to make it a "Christian nation" is to fill it with Christians -- and that can't be legislated.

    By Blogger Q, at 10/18/2004 05:35:00 AM  

  • Mike
    I appreciate this post. A friend of mine recently experienced her Church of Christ minister preaching a sermon saying that Christians must answer to God for their votes and those votes must be pro-life. I wrote an answer on my blog "Single issue senselessness."

    One of my main themes as a teacher of politics in a Christian high school is that people of good minds,good hearts, and great faith can disagree about policy.

    By Blogger Beverly Choate Dowdy, at 10/18/2004 01:28:00 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger Beverly Choate Dowdy, at 10/18/2004 01:29:00 PM  

  • Mike,
    I agree with much of what this piece says. It does bother me, though, that the author seems to be doing some pretty healthy condemning in an article about not condemning.

    By Blogger cathy moore, at 10/22/2004 09:39:00 AM  

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