Another political season, filled with the venality and viciousness of a middle-school cat fight, has come and gone. It is very difficult not to be cynical about the brokenness of our two-party system and its ever-expanding ties to special interest groups and big business. In the words of the immortal political pundit Pete Townshend, "Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss." I'm not sure any of it really matters.
But some things do matter. I'm not cynical about them. My former pastor Rich Nathan, whose scrunched up face appears in this week's Newsweek Magazine (why is it that magazines always find the most unflattering pictures of evangelicals?), had some interesting things to say last week in a talk/debate with Jim Wallis in Columbus.
Can I just say that I love this guy, and that his prophetic but measured words make more sense than about 99.99% of the people I encounter inside or outside church?
Take it away, Rich ...
It is a real privilege and pleasure to share a platform with Jim Wallis. My wife and I subscribed to Sojourners magazine before it was titled Sojourners back in the early 1970s. I think it was called Post-American back then and it was being published from Chicago, Illinois. As the old Virginia Slims advertisement used to go, “You’ve come a long way, baby!” My wife and I actually considered after college moving to Washington and joining the Sojourner’s community. So, I have appreciated Jim through his writings for over three decades.
Many of you don’t know me, so I will give you the briefest of autobiographies. I am a native New Yorker. I was raised in Queens, New York, in a conservative Jewish family. Like most Jews from New York, my family voted Democrat going back to at least the days of FDR. As a teenager, I participated in Vietnam War protests at the U.N. and in front of various corporations that were military suppliers for the Pentagon.
I became a follower of Jesus as a freshman in college at Case Western Reserve. It was through the witness of the woman who was to become my wife and, in particular, through the goodness and decency of her life, that Christianity became a credible option for me. And it was at a Passover dinner in 1974 that I surrendered my life to Jesus as my Lord and my Messiah.
Following that decision, I joined an evangelical church in Cleveland. And then, when my wife and I moved down to Columbus for me to attend law school, we joined a tiny non-denominational Christian community that has since grown and has become known as the Vineyard Church of Columbus. In 1987, I left my job teaching business law at OSU to become our church’s first senior pastor. I’ve been serving in the role of senior pastor of the Vineyard for the last 19 years.
So, in sum, I’ve spent my entire adult life inside the evangelical world. For those of you who are not familiar with what an “evangelical” is, we are people who take seriously what can be called “classical Christianity.” We really believe the historic creeds of the church – the Apostles, Nicene, and Chalcedonian Creeds. Like all classical Christians, we believe that God is a Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh; that he was literally born of a virgin; that he suffered under Pontius Pilate; that he was crucified, dead, and buried, and rose bodily from the dead. We evangelicals believe that Christ ascended into heaven and that he is one day going to come back to judge the living and the dead. So we believe what classical Christians have always believed and taught throughout the 2000 years of church history.
And as children of the Reformation, we also believe that the Bible is our final authority for faith and practice.
Now, up until 1980 you could find prominent evangelicals in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Billy Graham was a model of bi-partisan influence. But in 1980 there was a shift in the evangelical world, and with the election of Ronald Reagan you saw evangelicals essentially line up behind one party – the Republican Party. In the last Presidential election, 75% of white evangelicals voted Republican.
During the 1980s and 1990s the most prominent television and radio evangelicals – people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Kennedy, and James Dobson – began to influentially redefine evangelical political involvement as exclusively confined to the Republican political agenda.
But as I travel around the country and interact with a wide variety of evangelical leaders, I have discovered a changing landscape. I believe we are going to see an entirely new trajectory for evangelical political involvement over the next decade. Let me tick off five developments among evangelical leaders and lay people that I am particularly grateful for.
First of all, I am grateful that there is a broadening of the list of people who are now considered spokespersons for the evangelical movement. There are lots of us evangelicals who have found ourselves increasingly uncomfortable with the media’s selection of a few people of decidedly conservative politics who are regularly called our spokespeople. Whenever I hear this handful of people talk, I think, "This person doesn’t speak for me." When did anti-gun control through an expansive read of the Second Amendment become a Christian issue?
Don’t you hate it when someone’s views are 180 degrees out of sync with yours and yet they are called your spokesperson? You say, “When did I vote for them?”
I’m grateful that there is a broadening of who are considered spokespersons for the evangelical movement. Not only is Jim Wallis being widely quoted, but so are folks like Rick Warren, and Tony Campolo, and Miroslav Volf from Yale University, and Richard Hays from Duke. These folks wonderfully broaden the spectrum of evangelical influencers.
Second, I’m grateful that there is a broadening of the evangelical agenda beyond the two hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage. Evangelicals are saying, “How did we ever allow ourselves to become convinced that the entirety of the biblical agenda for our political involvement can be reduced to just two things – abortion and gay marriage?”
Now, like most evangelicals, I am convinced that abortion is a huge issue for which we must take a radical stand in opposition. I believe that the whole trajectory of gospel witness calls us to an inclusiveness towards those we call our neighbor. So in the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus asks: Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? Evangelicals believe that we are called to be the neighbor of the least powerful in the world – the unborn, the woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy, the severely handicapped, and the elderly. That is why we evangelicals virtually unanimously oppose abortion on demand, partial birth abortions, and doctor-assisted suicides. That is also why we evangelicals have stood with women through their pregnancies via the many pregnancy distress centers set up throughout our nation by evangelicals.
It is also certainly the case that we, as a society, must provide necessary support for women and children not only during the 9 months of pregnancy, but also after. But, I have to be honest with you and tell you that I was quite disappointed with the statement on abortion that is in the “Voting God’s Politics” brochure. While the statement regarding capital punishment is absolute and unequivocal, stating “our nation’s use of the death penalty should end,” the statement on abortion waffles and calls for “common ground policies that dramatically reduce the abortion rate.” We lawyers would say that the abortion statement contains “weasel words.” I believe the statement on abortion needs to be more absolute.
Having said that, I am so grateful that there is a broadening of the evangelical agenda that expands beyond abortion and gay marriage. There are many evangelicals coming out in opposition to global warming. There are more evangelicals speaking out about global poverty and the relief of Third World debt and AIDS. And I’m proud of the fact that evangelicals are taking the lead on some of the world’s most pressing issues. Specifically, it is largely the evangelical public that keeps the crisis in the Darfur region from being buried by the headlines of rising gas prices and falling tax rates. It is evangelicals who refuse to allow the President or the Congress to forget the Darfur region. And it is largely evangelicals who have kept global sex trade on the front burner for this administration. In fact, an evangelical organization called the International Justice Mission has led the way in fighting global sex trafficking.
Third, I’m grateful that evangelicals are moving away from our prior unreserved, unquestioning support for American military action around the world. Many evangelicals are now saying, “How did it come to be that we who claim to follow the Prince of Peace are stauncher advocates of war than any other demographic group in America?” And even those of us who do not come from a pacifist tradition, but rather a just-war tradition, have begun to ask, “How can some of our most recent wars be considered just?”
You know, St. Augustine, the father of the just war tradition, said that Christians may, on occasion, legitimately go to war. But we always do so with great reluctance and with tears.
Many of us evangelicals have asked ourselves, "Shouldn’t we Christians be the most difficult to convince of any group of people regarding the legitimacy of war? Shouldn’t we have the strongest presumption against war and require the government to have the highest burden of proof before we reluctantly, and with tears, go along with war?"
I am grateful that I am seeing a shift away from unreserved, unquestioning support for American military action among evangelicals.
Fourth, I am grateful that I am witnessing a shift among evangelicals towards the view that with God’s help, it is possible to change this world. The traditional evangelical view of the world is that the world is hopelessly fallen. Or to use the great 19th century evangelist, D.L. Moody’s line, “The world has hit an iceberg and the ship is going down. The only thing we can do is pull as many people as possible into the life boats.” So, for a century, many evangelicals have believed that it is an absolute waste of time to try to improve this fallen world, since to do so would be like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
But without being naïve regarding the fallenness of this world, or the difficulty of change, there are many evangelicals who are saying, "world change is possible with God’s help." In just the past fifteen years, we have witnessed the Roman Catholic Church rise up under the leadership of Pope John Paul II and throw off the chains of communism. We witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. We saw the church rise up under the leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa; and we saw the fall of the apartheid government. Christians largely led the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. It was Christians under the leadership of William Wilberforce who led the anti-slavery movement in the British empire. The American civil rights movement at its inception was largely led by the church.
I am grateful to see a growing hope among us evangelicals, that with God’s help the world can change.
And fifth, I am grateful that many more evangelicals are saying, "We are not going to be in the pocket of any political party." We have woken up from our naiveté and we recognize that pre-election day promises have not translated into post-election day action. So the evangelical vote is more and more up for grabs. And that is a good thing!
Now, having stated what I’m grateful for, I need to briefly share with you three cautions regarding evangelical political involvement. I want you to notice, by the way, that my talk has more positives than negatives. The Puritans said that one of the measures of the truth of a sermon was that there would be more positives than negatives.
My first concern is to warn churches and pastors against partisan political involvements. It is impossible to be a biblical Christian without preaching on and working for justice, for the poor, or caring for the earth, or committing ourselves to peacemaking, or committing ourselves to racial reconciliation, or being commitedly and consistently pro-life. But once churches and pastors begin to translate these broad value statements into very particular policy choices, we can unnecessarily divide the body of Christ and obscure the gospel message.
I am concerned that in many congregations people feel like they have to go through two conversions in order to receive Christ. First, they have to be converted to the church’s partisan political views, and secondly, they have to be converted to Christ.
I believe that it is generally best for pastors and churches to serve as spiritual advisors for those whose calling it is to engage in the political arena. We have many people in our congregation who are involved in politics on both sides of the aisle – both Democrats and Republicans. I hold up as personal models for me John Wesley and Charles Simeon, who taught the scriptures faithfully, who advised and prayed for and promoted biblical thinking among those involved in the political arena. But then they left it to groupings of Christians outside of the church and new societies such as the abolitionist societies to fight these issues through in the legislature.
I recently had very painful conversation with a Christian pastor here in town. His congregation is quite partisan and definitely leans in one direction politically. I asked my Christian brother about this, saying, “If someone was in your church and they were a sincere follower of Christ, but they disagreed with you about your political stands, would they feel marginalized in your church?”
He said, “Yes, they would.”
I asked, “Why would you do that to a member of the body of Christ?”
I’m concerned when partisan positions unnecessarily divide the body and obscure the message of the gospel.
I’m also concerned when churches don’t realize that the church uses different language than the language of politics. Let me tell you a story.
There was a great hero of the civil rights movement that many of you may not have ever heard of. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer was the founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the credentials of the lily-white Mississippi slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party offered an integrated slate of delegates, many of whom, like Mrs. Hamer, tried to register to vote in Mississippi, but were punished for it. In fact, Fannie Lou Hamer was jailed on a number of occasions, and tortured in jail, for doing such outrageous things as trying to register to vote in the United States.
Well, this conflict between the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the white slate of delegates selected by the Mississippi Democratic Party was threatening the peace of the 1964 Democratic National Convention. President Johnson didn’t want the controversy to upset his ride to the White House, so he sent his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, to visit Mrs. Hamer and to try to get her to back off.
Humphrey, who was the ever-happy warrior, went believing that he was just going to be talking to a typical politically motivated human being. So he asked Fannie Lou Hamer what she wanted. Now Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman who had been taken hold of by Jesus Christ. And Fannie Lou Hamer responded to Vice President Humphrey by saying, “What I want is the beginning of a new kingdom right here on earth.” Humphrey didn’t know how to deal with that statement. So he tried to explain things in political terms. He wanted Fannie Lou Hamer to understand that if he and Johnson were nominated, that they would work hard for Civil Rights, so she should compromise now and not push her slate of delegates.
Here’s Fannie Lou Hamer’s response:
Senator Humphrey, I know lots of people in Mississippi who have lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. I had to leave the plantation where I worked in Sunflower County. Now, if you lose this job of Vice President because you do what is right, because you help MFDP, everything will be all right. God will take care of you. But if you take the nomination this way, why, you will never be able to do any good for civil rights, for poor people, for peace, or any of those things you talk all the time about. Senator Humphrey, I’m going to pray to Jesus for you.
Churches ought to speak prophetic language, not political language. It is not wrong to speak the language of politics, the language of compromise and “half a loaf is better than none,” when we are in the political arena. But church is not that arena. In church we speak prophetic language, the language of kingdom absolutes and moral imperatives – the language of Fannie Lou Hamer and the prophets Amos and Jeremiah, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
My third concern is that we Christians, whenever we engage in politics, remember the third and last clause of Micah 6:8. You remember Micah 6:8. “He has shown you, O people, what is good and what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Christians in politics often focus on the first two statements, doing justice and loving mercy. But there is an atmosphere in which our doing justice and our loving of mercy needs to be practiced. One of the great dangers of any human being wanting to do justice is having a self-righteous, ugly, divisive, mentality, this sense of moral superiority in which the zealot for justice approaches the world: "Only people like me care about the poor. Only people like me care about the environment. Only people like me care about the unborn. Only people like me are really in touch with the true issues of the world."
What saves us from the awful stench of self-righteous, moral indignation is a commitment to walk humbly with God. We followers of Jesus can never approach the rest of the church or the rest of the world with some kind of triumphalism – we can fix everything; we can solve every problem; if people would just get on board with our agenda, the world would be healed.
God continually reminds us that we are limited. Life continually teaches us that there are issues and problems that go far beyond our wisdom and our resources. Real change is always much more difficult than we ever predict. And no one ever likes someone standing over them judging them.
But if we Christians come towards this world as servants, bearing the basin and the towel; if we commit ourselves to doing what we believe to be the will of God with humility; if we approach each other with humility and a willingness to listen and be persuaded; to learn and to be reconcilers; if, in other words, we “walk humbly with God,” then we will be faithful witnesses to Christ and will be used by him to be healers of this world.