In the contemporary culture of mass media with the emergence of talk radio and the development of the blogosphere, the national conversation concerning politics is now constant and widespread at the same time. Christians are in on the conversation and more than that, exert their influence in a variety of ways. Of course, this state of affairs continues to raise questions concerning Christian political engagement. Those questions are intensified with the approach of each new election cycle. At the same time, with new issues confronting Americans (and indeed the world) on a daily basis and with an aging set of evangelical figures in this arena, conservative Christians find themselves at a crossroads. That crossroads is not only critical in terms of the future influence of evangelicals in the political sphere, but also in terms of the evangelical soul.
According to the AP, “as they court the evangelicals who have become so crucial to their party, Republican presidential candidates are stepping into the middle of a family fight. Christian conservative activists are more split than ever over whether to keep the movement's focus on abortion, marriage and sexual chastity - or scrap that approach as too narrow. The founders of the religious right, now in the twilight of their leadership, see even the suggestion of expanding the agenda as a dangerous distraction.”
“‘It's an ongoing debate within the house of evangelicals,’ said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington think-tank. ‘It's about how evangelicals present themselves in the public arena.’ In November, some Christian conservatives condemned pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren for inviting Sen. Barack Obama to speak at an AIDS summit at his church. Obama, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, supports abortion rights.”
“Just this month, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and 24 other top Christian conservatives pressured the National Association of Evangelicals to silence its Washington director, the Rev. Rich Cizik. The reason: Cizik tried to convince evangelicals that global warming is real.”
“The board of the association not only stood by Cizik, it then moved on to endorse a critique of U.S. policy toward terror detainees called ‘An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.’ Evangelicals, who mostly have a conservative world view to match their theology, rarely speak out against the policies of a Republican president - especially one at war.” Of course, these dynamics serve to highlight the disturbing situation in which we find ourselves.
First, the debate within evangelicalism over whether to expand or narrow the focus is shameful for at least two reasons. The first reason has to do with the nature of Christian obligation in general. Christians must speak to every issue. Since when can we remain silent on something because it doesn’t suit the larger political agenda? The Christian worldview is not something to be pulled out like a weapon. It is not a particular angle on a particular issue. It is not a decision to be made in the back room of a political organization masquerading as an agent of gospel advance. The Christian worldview is the way a Christian views the world. It is the lens through which he sees all of reality and that lens is the bible. As the bible informs his understanding of God’s world, he speaks for God to the issues of life in an effort to call persons to repentance and faith in Christ. To set aside certain issues for political purposes is to look at God’s world and man’s plight with one eye closed and represent them both in half-hearted way.
The second reason has to do with the nature of Christian ministry. Christians and Christian leaders should speak to all of life as spokesmen from God. We are ambassadors for Christ. However, speaking to a select number of political issues with one voice is not the driving force of gospel ministry nor is it the proper focus or method of kingdom advance. To turn the evangelical world into one massive political action committee is to distort our calling, to blunt our message, and to compromise our position. The present debate is a case in point. We have become political pawns to be pandered to and courted and we have adopted our agenda and adapted our message to be seen as relevant. Christians are under a biblical mandate to speak the truth in love and leave the results to God.
Second, the debate within evangelicalism proves that our allegiance is compromised. We are more culturally and politically influenced than we are biblically influenced. Evangelicals might agree on abortion but disagree on the issue of torture. Why? The answer lies in the fact that too many Christians are more influenced by Jack Bauer and the fantasy that surrounds him than they are the Scriptures. But, perhaps more to the point, the issue of torture is political. Those who are opposed to torture are viewed as soft on war and regarded as critical of the President or the war on terror. By who are we influenced more: Mike Gallagher or Christ? Our position and unity must flow from a thoroughgoing biblical worldview as opposed to culturally iconic individuals or mindsets and/or political posturing.
The sad reality is that we might agree on the sin of homosexuality but we disagree on role of the state in marriage because we will not come to grips with the reality that marriage is instituted by God and not the state. The politics of marriage has usurped the biblical reality of marriage. We might agree on the need for political engagement but we disagree on having political candidates in the pulpit because we refuse to see that the gospel and the worship of Almighty God may not be set aside for a party spirit, a tainted message, or a pandering politician. The political action committee has usurped the business of God. We might agree on religious liberty but we try and separate that from civil liberty. Certain civil liberties are appropriate for Democrats and not Republicans and others are appropriate for Republicans and not Democrats. The real question that evangelicals have missed is this: what saith the Lord?
Third, evangelicals are slow to learn (maybe we should dial back the rhetoric concerning the wilderness generation in the aftermath of the Exodus and their inability to learn). When will we learn that politicians are merely courting our vote? When we will learn that very little has really changed? Roe v. Wade is a case in point. When will we learn that politicians promise much to obtain our vote but once elected, they go with their own political aspirations? When will we learn that there are very few statesmen left who will tell us what they believe up front and live by it regardless of the political fallout? When will we learn that we must cast a principled vote, speak the truth in love, and leave the results to God?
Witness the fact that “GOP candidates, many lacking strong evangelical backgrounds, have been flocking” to evangelical powerbrokers. “Arizona Sen. John McCain gave last year's commencement address at Liberty University. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are scheduled to soon speak at [Pat] Robertson's Regent University. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich just went on [James] Dobson's radio program to confess and seek forgiveness for an extramarital affair as Gingrich pursued President Clinton's impeachment in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gingrich is considering a presidential run and will be Liberty's commencement speaker in May.”
Witness the AP’s assessment of what the candidates are after as veiled advice is offered by way of commentary: “Still, none of the men can be kingmaker - delivering the evangelical vote and the GOP nomination to a favored candidate. The organizational muscle of the movement - once controlled by national groups linked to Falwell, Robertson and a few others - now lies with local pastors, who were key to Bush's 2004 re-election win. A large number of Christian conservatives have become GOP insiders; white evangelicals form more than one-third of the party's base.”
Evangelicals are at a crossroads. Will we come to our senses and see once again that at this crossroads our message is the cross? And yes, in the marketplace of ideas and at the table of public debate our message is still the cross. Will we learn that we cannot pick and choose which issues we will address? Will we learn that in addressing issues we cannot tow the political party line but that we must speak from a biblically informed perspective regardless of the rhetorical or political fallout? Will we learn that our way is not the way of compromise and political deal-making but that our way is the way of the cross? We are at a crossroads. Let me offer this word by way of reminder: “…broad is the road that leads to destruction…narrow is the road that leads to life…(Matt. 7:13-14).” You make the application, and the choice.
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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