In an article in the Chronicle of Education, evangelical Christian and scholar Randall Balmer excoriates the the ties between the Religious Right and the Republican Party. These ties, he suggests, have deadened the sensibilities to right and wrong, to Jesus' call to a countercultural concern for the poor, and to a consistent pro-life ethic, among that portion of the evangelical community that has joined this political marriage.
Worse, Balmer seems to say, it has sidetracked big chunks of Christ's Church from its central mission: Sharing the Good News of Christ and helping people to grow in their relationship with Christ.
While not agreeing with every single thing Balmer says in his essay, I do think that, by and large, the Religious Right's engagement in politics has tarnished the image of Christ and the Church and risked subordinating the Gospel to earthly political philosophies. Religious liberals have been guilty of the same things in the past, in my estimation.
Among the most important statements Balmer, a church historian who teaches at Barnard College, makes, are these:
Religion functions best outside the political order, and often as a challenge to the political order. When it identifies too closely with the state, it becomes complacent and ossified, and efforts to coerce piety or to proscribe certain behavior in the interests of moral conformity are unavailing...My own Lutheran tradition provides tragic examples of what's wrong when the Church becomes tied to political power. During the Nazi era, the Lutheran Church there effectually functioned as an apologist for what Adolf Hitler did.
...By the late 1970s, the leaders of the religious right felt their hegemony over American society slipping away. One reading of the religious right is that many evangelicals believed that their faith could no longer compete in the new, expanded religious marketplace. No wonder the religious right wants to renege on the First Amendment. No wonder the religious right seeks to encode its version of morality into civil and criminal law. No wonder the religious right wants to emblazon its religious creeds and symbols on public property. Faced now with a newly expanded religious marketplace, it wants to change the rules of engagement so that evangelicals can enjoy a competitive advantage. Rather than gear up for new competition...the religious right seeks to use the machinations of government and public policy to impose its vision of a theocratic order.
But pluralism is a good thing. It keeps religious groups from resting on their laurels — or their endowments, in the case of mainline Protestantism — and makes them competitive in the marketplace of ideas...
...America has been kind to religion, but not because the government has imposed religious faith or practice on its citizens. Quite the opposite. Religion has flourished because religious belief and expression have been voluntary, not compulsory. We are a religious people precisely because we have recognized the rights of our citizens to be religious in a different way from us, or even not to be religious at all. We are simultaneously a people of faith and citizens of a pluralistic society, one in which Americans believe that it is inappropriate, even oppressive, to impose the religious views of a minority — or even of a majority — on all of society. That is the genius of America, and it is also the reason that religion thrives here as nowhere else.
As I argued in my testimony as an expert witness in the Alabama Ten Commandments case, religion has prospered in this country precisely because the government has stayed out of the religion business. The tireless efforts on the part of the religious right to eviscerate the First Amendment in the interests of imposing its own theocratic vision ultimately demeans the faith even as it undermines the foundations of a democratic order that thrives on pluralism.
Jesus himself recognized that his followers held a dual citizenship. "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's," he said, "and to God what is God's." Negotiating that dual status can be fraught, but it is incumbent upon responsible citizens of this earthly realm to abide by certain standards of behavior deemed essential for the functioning of the social order. Much as I would like all of my fellow Americans to be Christians or vegetarians or Democrats, I have no right to demand it. The leaders of the religious right have failed to observe even the most basic etiquette of democracy.
Is there a better way? Yes, I think so. It begins with an acknowledgement that religion in America has always functioned best from the margins, outside of the circles of power, and that any grasping for religious hegemony ultimately trivializes and diminishes the faith...
Today, there are no Nazi terror regimes in Germany. But the state churches--Lutheran churches--there and throughout Scandinavia are, to a frightening extent, theologically bankrupt and largely empty on Sunday mornings. Numbers don't equate to faithfulness, of course. But a Church that's in bed with the government and with political power gets confused about Who its Lord is.
As a person long interested in government, history, and politics, I know how intoxicating and alluring political contests and political victories can be. I even ran for the state House of Representatives here in Ohio two years ago. But I was careful to say that I wasn't running as a "Christian candidate" and my central issue was trying to fix the scandalous public school funding formula in this state, helping public schools hardly being the sort of thing the Religious Right embraces. (FYI: I'm a Republican.) In retrospect, though, running may have been a mistake on my part.
But no matter how many elections you win, no matter how many pieces of legislation you see passed, and no matter how many judges you get appointed to the Court, the coercive power of government will not change people's hearts, minds, and wills. Those things cannot bring them to faith in Jesus Christ, change their eternal destinies, or alter their attitudes about life, God, or neighbor.
So you get a ruling that allows the display of the Ten Commandments on the Court House lawn. But Christians know, first of all, that the law doesn't save a person from sin and death. So, is that a battle worth waging? I don't think so.
So you get Roe v. Wade overturned. As much as I would like that to happen, unless people's ways of looking at life undergo transformation, hundreds of thousands of abortions are still likely to happen. In his essay, Balmer says, "I have no interest in making abortion illegal; I would like to make it unthinkable."
The Church is to call people to faith in Jesus Christ, not micromanage public policy or get involved in the Punch-and-Judy show that passes for political debate.
There will be times when the Church will feel compelled by Christ to speak out on public issues. Such statements should be rare and as has generally been true in Church history, usually not on the sides of those who possess the power.
If you've ever read C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, you know that it tells the story of the losing war fought by the last king of Narnia and two earthly compatriots to save the fictional realm of Narnia from the darkness of evil. In the end, though, the world which the Christ-figure of those books, Aslan, had created and blessed for many thousands of years, ended.
Lewis wrote this, in part, as a way of conveying a truth about our world. This God-created and God-blessed planet will some day end. That end will prove that all our victories, political or otherwise, may have some short-term importance, lasting perhaps five or six centuries if we're lucky, but they will have little ultimate importance.
Politics is important. Every individual Christian should see it as their responsibility to be an informed and active citizen. But what politics does is seldom of ultimate importance.
The Church is to be about ultimate things: The eternal destinies of those who need Jesus Christ. (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8)
I would rather ensure that one person is not made to face a Christ-less eternity by my failure to be about the business of the Church than to pass a law or get a court judgment that forces a county to erect or maintain a monument to the Ten Commandments that most people--Christians and non-Christians--will pass by and ignore.
Our priorities can get screwed up...mine included. Just a few moments ago, as I was writing this very post, there was a knock at my door. A husband, wife, and their little girl dressed in what we used to call "their Sunday best," were here from the local Jehovah's Witness outpost. They wanted to invite me to some convention in Dayton. I told them that I was a Lutheran pastor, not as a way of beginning to tell them about how much Jesus Christ loved them and wanted a relationship with them, but just to get rid of them. God forgive me! God have mercy on me!
We Christians too easily get sidetracked. For the sake of people like that family, living in the darkness of the Jehovah's Witness movement and millions of other people who need the Good News of Jesus Christ, we need to ask God to help us to get back on track again!
Heaven, I'm sure, is just waiting for us to utter that prayer...and to tell the world about Jesus!
[You might also be interested in my critique of President Bush's January 20, 2005 Inaugural Address here. In it, I analyze whether it could be characterized as a "Christian" statement, as many said it was.]
[UPDATE: In the comments, I respond to one reader who, I fear has misunderstood my intent in this piece:
Balmer is critical of GOP policies and gives a litany of his concerns.
I meant my comments not to be a commentary on the Republicans, but on the Religious Right.
Pols will generally do anything they can to build their coalitions. If the Democrats could win over big-name evangelical Christian leaders and paint themselves as the party of the Christian faith, they would do it without hesitation. The idea for these folks, of either party, is to get votes and have power. Period.
My point is that it's wrong to allow the Name of Jesus Christ be used to legitimize any earthly political philosophy, even ones with which we may be sympathetic. It also sidetracks the Church from its fundamental mission.]