Friday, July 02, 2004

Could I Have Your Attention Please, Mr. President?

Mr. President:

Let me put my cards on the table.

I am a deeply committed evangelical Christian---that is, a good news Christian. In my sometimes-liberal denomination, I occasionally take heat for that. But my reading of the Bible and my personal experience as a one-time atheist who fell in love with Jesus Christ, tell me that we need the Good News of forgiveness, new life, and hope that only Jesus gives. I believe that while God cares about all people, as a loving God, God grants to all the ability to say Yes or No to Him. As a follower of Jesus, my call is to help people know why it’s so wonderful when you say Yes to Him and the Good News of Jesus. If your campaign biographies are to be believed, you have similar sentiments.

I’m also a Republican: pro-life, pro-entrepreneurship, pro-frugal spending, and in favor of the kind of subtle and appropriate application of military, economic, and political power that have characterized Republican presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and your father in the first Gulf War. I was a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives here in Ohio earlier this year.

But, Mr. President, I have been long concerned over the attempts by both Christian and Republican leaders to make it appear that if you’re a Christian, you must be a Republican. I have objected to this equation of "Christian" and "Republican" for several reasons.

First: It simply isn’t true. While I am aware of polling data showing a propensity for the religiously-affiliated to be conservative and Republican (and that conforms to my personal observations, as well), there are also deeply committed Christians who are liberals and Democrats.

The fact is, the Bible does not proscribe particular political or economic systems.

Christians are completely free to vote or not to vote. They're free to vote for Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, independents, Martians, or anybody else they choose.

It is perfectly possible for Christians to study the Bible and pray about the appropriate exercise of their voting rights and conclude that they’re going to support a Democrat. God won’t send them to hell without an electric fan for that!

Second: The equation of any political ideology with the Gospel of Jesus Christ amounts to idol-worship.

To equate following Jesus to being a good Republican is really an attempt to make Jesus over in a particularly preferred image. That can't and shouldn't be done to the Savior we claim to be God-in-the-flesh!

The Christian should instead be committed to letting Jesus make us over in His image. Our prayer as citizens should never be, “Lord, bless what I believe,” but, “Lord, help me to believe and do what You bless.” That's why when we pray, we tell God, "Your will be done."

The ultimate call of all who seek to follow Jesus is to love God completely and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Republicans, Democrats, and independents may have different answers as to how they want to express that love of God and neighbor in the political realm. Only in heaven will we know who was right or wrong. Or, more accurately, how right or wrong we were.

But some preachers who back you and some Republicans who tout your candidacy for re-election seem to regard it as an article of faith that if people don’t bow down at the altar of conservative politics, your brand of conservative politics, they’re damned.

There is only one God, Mr. President: the God revealed through Jesus Christ. No -ism, philosophy, ideology, or program can contain Him or reflect Him perfectly. Nor can they command our allegiance. No political campaign can claim the endorsement of Jesus Christ or whittle Him down to sizes that suit our purposes!

I wish that you would say that publicly. I wish that you would tell your supporters that it is absolutely appropriate to pray about where they will stand on political issues and to be able to explain the line of reasoning that leads them from their faith in Christ to where they land politically.

But I wish that you would also tell them that you find it personally reprehensible for anybody to claim that they have a personal political pipeline to Jesus or to imply that God and the GOP have the same political agenda.

Third: Many of the attempts to proscribe specific behaviors that are advocated by your administration reflect a functional atheism, a refusal to believe that if we Christians will faithfully pray and share the Good News of Jesus, the Holy Spirit will help people to confess Jesus as Lord.

Christians are never to coerce people into acquiescence to Jesus' Lordship! Persuasion undergirded by God’s Spirit, not any political or economic program, is what we need in order to change people’s hearts and lives in our nation and our world.

It's true that we need government. Theologian Martin Luther said that God rules the world in two ways. First: God rules the hearts of those who have surrendered to Christ. Because Jesus is their Lord, they will tend, in spite of all humanity's shared inborn sin, to voluntarily do what is best for their neighbors and their community. Second: Through governments, God rules those who have not surrendered to Christ, forcing people to do what is best for all through coercion and law. Luther said that were it not for governmental authority, Christians would go through life like lambs amid ravenous wolves. For the good of all, we Christians also ought to submit to the authority of government, when it attempts to act justly.

Luther wrote in a pre-democratic time. As in Bible times, Luther, who lived from 1483 to 1546, lived in a time when nobody but royalty had a say in what governments did. In America, we believe that the people are sovereign and therefore have a “piece of the action” when it comes to governance. But the experiences of those times and places where kings imposed their religion on others---as they do today in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia and even, in its way, in China, where the government touts an atheist, economic determinism as its “religion"---should be a lesson to us. Yes, governments should enact legislation that prevents people from being hurt by others and to promote the well-being of all. But no government should impose a specific religion or form of morality on others. It is both un-Christian and un-American to do so. No partisans or adherents of one political philosophy should claim to be more righteous or worthy than opponents who may themselves, worship the same Christ and pray in His Name!

More broadly, no government should act as the agent of a specific religious belief system. Freedom of religion for all--the Christian as well as the non-Christian--is imperiled when people take it into their heads to impose their views on others. A government which imposes specifically Christian views this year may be replaced for example, by a Mormon government, with markedly different views the next year. The coercive imposition of our own particular faith values on others is dangerous, apt to create paybacks that are ultimately destructive of the cause of Christ and which are, in any case, contrary to how Jesus told us to do our mission as Christians.

Attempts to push a so-called "Christian social agenda" in the policies of government reflect a belief that God isn’t big enough, persuasive enough, loving enough, or real enough to use our humble, faithful, loving proclamations of Jesus Christ to really help people live differently.

Much of so-called “Christian political activism” is based on the unspoken fear that God is just too puny to get anything done. That’s why I label this brand of political activity as I do: It's atheism, a failure to trust in God to be God. And neither you or your campaign should be encouraging it or exploiting it, Mr. President. You should especially not be doing it at the same time that you're professing faith in the God Who can use people with faith in Him to do great things (Matthew 19:12), even if their faith is no bigger than a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32).

These “Christian political activists” seem to overlook the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, never took the reins of political, military, or economic power, never forced anybody to do things His way. The only people Jesus ever blasted were first, the Pharisees: religious folks who wanted to force people into conformity with their particular versions of following God and second, Herod, who made a habit of exploiting faith while not himself trusting God.

Rather than trying to impose their versions of Christian faith on others, Mr. President, some of your religious supporters would do well to read the Bible.

They might heed Peter when he writes: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (First Peter 3:15-16)

They might remember that faith can’t be coerced. Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.” (First Corinthians 12:5)

It is frustrating to live in a culture that wants to turn its back on God, as is true of America today. But as Christians, we cannot allow our frustration with a disbelieving culture to cause us to give into defeatism. For it is defeatism that makes us fall prey to the un-Christian tactics of governmental coercion and moralism. That is not the way people are won for Christ!

The politician who is a Christian should simply strive to live his or her faith as best they can, praying over every decision and treating their opponents not as villains to be conquered, but as people (fellow sinners) for whom--just like us--Jesus died and rose. That's what every Christian citizen should expect of their political leaders who wear the label, "Christian."

I bring all of this up because of a Reuter’s news story that came out today. (You can click title above to get to the article.) It reports that your campaign is now asking churches for their membership rosters so that Christians can be organized for your campaign. A memo is even being circulated to “help” churches that want to have voter-registration rallies and candidate-education emphases during worship services.

Mr. President. As long as I’m a pastor, there will never be any political rallies intruding on worship of Almighty God of the church I serve!

There will never be any implication that to be a good Christian, you have to vote one way or another.

Your campaign--and no political campaign--will ever receive the membership roster of our congregation.

No candidate will ever be allowed to “say a few words” to the assembled congregation.

Mr. President, even when I ran for office this year, I told a supporter of mine not to stand up during the announcements, asking people to help my candidacy. I knew that good Christians had the right to vote for my opponents. The Church should avoid either the appearance or the reality of endorsing a candidate or political party.

The Church is not a political institution. The Church is not an outlet for George W. Bush or the Republican Party or any other poltiical group. Not only would that be objectionable for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, it’s also probably against federal statutes regulating the political activities of not-for-profit organizations.

So, Mr. President, I ask you to stop your campaign from going into the churches, holding political rallies, soliciting members’ names for political purposes, or doing anything else that obviously violates the sanctity of the Church’s mission and seeks to subordinate the Church to partisan politics. I hope that you will fire the campaign aides who concocted or enacted this strategy. It is reprehensible.

God bless you, Mr. President. I pray for you every day.


Thel said...

It's really disheartening to know that many of the Christians I grew up with would honestly consider me a heretic and a "fake Christian" based solely on my political affiliation. This is a wonderful essay, and a much-needed message right now. One of my biggest hopes is for more Christians--from both political parties--to loudly declare this sentiment.

Thanks for writing this. You've made my day.

Anonymous said...

As always, Mark does a good job of expressing a position, and one with which I agree and applaud. Very well said. -Glen Bengson