07 October 2004

The evangelical Christian witness in politics

A friend of mine, long involved in Republican politics, often says, "I believe that the best thing I can do for another person is to introduce them to Jesus Christ."

Coming from my friend, this statement is eminently reasonable and believable. He has a long record of working in a bipartisan way for the benefit of his whole community, including service at the federal level for a Democratic president. He worked for better interracial understanding in a time and place where the nearly 100% white demographics would have made it easy to avoid the issue. In a word, his Christian witness and his political witness have been congruent. This is not a story of empty piety.

This year's political campaign features evangelical political rhetoric of a very different order. The stories of the Bible-banning images* of Democrats, and the exhortations to vote based on the fear of the Democrats' "extreme liberalism," do not come from the same origins as the Republicanism of my friend. Whether or not there is a cause and effect relationship, we both see that the rise of this polarization parallels the collapse of the bipartisan assumption among taxpayers that prevailed here in Oregon, and in much of the country, over several generations, that the needs of the community - perhaps particularly the children and their schools - deserved generous support.

It might be argued that this polarization, this frenzy to rubbish the opponents, is mutual. Neither "side" has a monopoly on virtue, victimhood ... or guilt. I agree. The amount of mail that I used to get at the Friends United Meeting offices threatening that the Democrats' homosexual agenda was about to take over the White House unless my check to the Republicans or their evangelical cheerleaders was sent forthwith, was approximately equalled by the mailings from People for the American Way and their look-alikes, warning me urgently about a red, white and blue tide of bigots and fundamentalists. They, too, of course, never failed to enclose a contribution envelope. Both sides had learned well the lesson mentioned in Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas in their book Blinded by Might: effective fundraising is based on shared enemies.

Christians, however, do not have a right to campaign this way. At least, we do not have this right as Christians. The use of the power of religious rhetoric to accomplish political ends, when accompanied by distortions of truth and objectification of one's adversaries, seems to me to come close to the sin against the Holy Spirit. This is part of the reason that I feel so strongly that my responsibility as a political opponent of George Bush is to pray for him daily. I cannot let myself turn him into a rhetorical punching bag, and especially not in the context of a political campaign.

One other aspect of the current picture of evangelicals in today's American politics troubles me. George Barna's stats on the overwhelming inclination of evangelicals to vote for George Bush are not just problematic theologically, although that is certainly a problem. (It exposes the biblical shallowness of much of Christian politics, the convenient confusion of affluence and piety.) Just as problematic is the lack of evangelical leaven in the politically moderate and liberal side of the line. Where is the evangelistic impulse that is supposed to be the key witness of evangelical Christianity? Can't we even spare a few missionaries to work among Democrats, for heaven's sake?? A Quaker minister once said that an evangelist in the pulpit is like a cow in the garage; they're supposed to be out ministering among the unconverted. Instead, to take one admittedly jaundiced and distressed view of the stats, it looks as if the behavior of most of today's evangelical political activists is to make Christianity look even more cut-off, unpalatable, mean-spirited, arrogant and self-serving than the caricatures of the past. I can't help wondering whether that isn't at least a part of the statistics showing a majority of mainstream Christians and non-Christians intending to vote for the Democrats in 2004; some of those people are voting the way they always would have, but others might have been repelled by Christian behavior. Some of that behavior has been damnably repulsive.

* acknowledging source of this image: http://chuckcurrie.blogs.com/chuck_currie/2004/09/index.html

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