Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Jesus is Not a Republican"

First of all: Amen to that! I've said that before. Jesus is also not a Democrat.

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...

...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...
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.

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.]

13 comments:

Deborah White said...

Wow, wonderful post. Thanks, Mark.

Balmer is absolutely correct. And of course, torture is always evil and immoral. Rationalizations are just that: rationalizations to serve agendas and personal demons.

Both Republicans and Democrats have, indeed, had their turns at equating their faith with political partisanship. It's the religious right and Republicanism, though, that has cornered that 21st century market with arrogant (and even bullying) sanctimonious. Now, some even propose breaking up entire denominations when they don't get their way on specific issues.

The tide seems to be turning lately. More and more moderates seem to be repelled by, rather than attracted to, the trivialization of faith in service of the far-right political agenda.

And that is joyous news for both our great country and for the church.

Danny Haszard said...

Good post,you should know this about Jehovah's Witnesses that their core dogma is that Jesus had his second coming 'invisibly' in 1914.

This date has it's origin from the second Adventist movement that in turn was derived from the William Miller apocalyptic movement of 1844.

Do a google search and see for yourself,nearly every secular 'non-apostate' source say's that Jehovah's Witnesses are a Millerite "mutation" spin-off.
The 1914 date is a lie,which means that that the 1918 'sealing of the 144,000' is false too so the entire Watchtower doctrinal superstructure comes crashing down like a house of cards.

The Watchtower is a man made cult of falsehoods from the get-go.

---
Tell the truth and don't be afraid--Danny Haszard http://www.dannyhaszard.com

Anna said...

Hi Mark -

I don't think being a Christian and being involved as a good citizen of our nation are mutually exclusive of each other. Christians should speak up and be active in BOTH arenas.

The charge that Christians are seeking to impose their sanctimonious brand of Christianity on others or want a theocracy is baseless in fact. No one is forcing anyone to become a Christian. However, more and more Christians are being told they cannot express their faith in the public square, they must be politically correct or face the consequences and their free speech and freedom of religion are being eroded. If we do not stand up and be counted, we will lose our freedoms.

While I have serious differences with some policies of the Republican Party and express them, they more closely reflect my views on issues of morality. Where a Republican is pro-abortion and a Democrat is pro-life, I'll vote for the Democrat or a third-party, pro-life candidate. It's not about the party, it's about living out my faith in the nitty-gritty areas of life.

Anna

Mark Daniels said...

Deborah:
Thank you for your comments. I do think more Christians are getting turned off by the politicizaton of faith in Jesus Christ.

They're also chafing under the attempts by some to subordinate Christ to their preferred political agendas. Seldom can one draw a straight line between the Bible and a vote on a specific piece of legislation, policy proposal, or general election. It amounts to idolatry of ideology to suggest otherwise.

Danny:
I've studied Jehovah's Witnesses extensively and to me it's tragic how far from the witness of Scriptures their beliefs take people.

Thank you for commenting.

Anna:
Thanks also to you for taking the time to read and comment on the blog. I appreciate it.

I didn't say that being a Christian on the one hand, and being an active, engaged citizen on the other, were mutually exclusive things. In fact, I said that I felt Christians should be informed, active citizens.

What I object to is pastors and others claiming the mantle of leadership within the Church and even individual churches downsizing Christ and the Gospel by pretending that their personal political preferences are ordained by God.

I, as a Pastor, may have been wrong to run for political office two years ago because of the confusion my candidacy may have created. Even though I tried to tell people that I didn't claim that my views reflected God's directives, some may have automatically assumed me to believe that because of my profession.

God bless you.

Mark

foxwizard said...

Hi Mark,
Excellent post. I'm glad preachers of the real gospel of Jesus Christ are finally speaking up. I am really sck and tired of so-called evangelical Christians whining about being repressed and victimized. Nero victimized Christians when he fed them to the lions. No longer being able to dictate what everybody reads is not the nearly the same, and the attitude that one narrow fringe of one religious faith ought to be able to impose its understaning on everyone else has done much more violence to society, and to the cause of the Gospel of Jesus, than any anti-Christian efforts ever have.

As a citizen, I'm also very seriously concerned about the erosion of constituional rule and the rule of law in our land. The Christian Right continues to support politicians who seem more facist than Republican, and who believe they are above the law. What the religious right doesn't seem to understand is that Facists, once they fully consolidate their power, will have no more use for them, and they'll be subject to the same tyranny as the rest of us.

Mark Daniels said...

Fox:
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.

Mark

Charlie said...

It's a complex topic, so I'll just comment on a couple of things.

First, Balmer beats up a tired old straw man by claiming that the aim of the religious right is to establish a theocracy and impose its religious moral views on all Americans. He offers no proof of this because it's a baseless claim. Sure, there are some people on the fringes of the right who would love to create a theocracy, just as there are people on the fringes of the left who still think Communism is a peachy political system.

The fringe doesn't define the core on either side, though it gives both sides some great fodder for their fund-raising letters.

Second, there has never been a religious test for holding public office, for voting, or for participating in the public square in the US. That means that both religious and non-religious people are free to involve themselves in politics without checking their beliefs at the door. There is nothing wrong with Christians being politically active and letting their faith inform their political views, just as the left also lets its faith in progressivism inform its political views.

But we can't pretend to speak for God. We have to recognize that majority rule isn't supposed to be tyranny, but should be respectful of the constitutional rights of the minority because we are committed to pluralism in public life.

Politics is how a diverse culture figures out how to live at peace and in cooperation, even when we disagree. But politics can't change the inner man -- only God can do that.

Mark Daniels said...

Charlie:
First of all, I didn't see Balmer accusing the Religious Right of trying to establish a "theocracy."

He did object to their attempts to impose a particular version of Christian ethics on the body politic.

He did accuse them of not incorporating a fuller sensitivity to the entire will of God when it comes to protecting life, for example.

He did accuse them of being apologists for the powerful.

He did says that God is not a Republican. Where I think he went wrong is in implying that God might be a Democrat. Hence, my opening statements.

Second: I agree with you and stated it in my original post here and reiterated it in the update, I believe that Christians has every right to participate in politics. Indeed, I believe that they should participate. They should also be guided by their prayer, their study of God's Word, and their Christian sensibilities as they vote, donate to candidates and causes, and so on.

What I object to, and object to strenuously, is the attempt by some clergy types and Christian leaders to hijack the Gospel, presuming to enlist Jesus in support of their own specific political agendas.

I object to them allowing politicians to use the church, as is happening this year in Ohio's gubernatorial race, to collect funds for political campaigns.

I object to preachers who presume to tell their flocks that Jesus Christ prefers Candidate X or Party R or D.

Faithful, Bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians can and do disagree about political issues. For example, the party to which I belong--the Republican--generally advocates an end to abortion, certainly a position rooted in Christian ethics. But Democrats frequently oppose capital punishment, also because of the value they place on human life. You could go down a list of issues like these and show the Christian underpinnings of opposing views.

Rare is the political issue on which a "Christian" position is unambiguously clear.

The late founder of a worldwide adult literacy movement, Frank Laubach, was also a man of constant prayer. Three years ago, I posted something about one of Laubach's books on prayer. It bears some relevance to this subject. Here's what I wrote:

"I keep a file of meaningful quotes drawn from the books I read. Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World is full of great quotes. In the current international crisis though, several stand out:

"'Most of us will never enter the White House and offer advice to the President. Probably he will never have time to read our letters [or our e-mails, I thought, as I read this]. But we can give him what is far more important than advice. We can give him a lift into the presence of God, make him hungry for divine wisdom...We can visit the White House with prayer as many times a day as we think of it, and every such visit makes us a channel between God and the President.'

"He also says that in our praying for the President and other leaders, '[w]e do not 'persuade God to try harder'...; it is our world leaders, our statesmen and church men [sic] whom we persuade to try harder. We help God when we pray. When great numbers of us pray for leaders, a mighty invisible spiritual force lifts our minds and eyes toward God. His Spirit flows through our prayer to them, and He can speak to them directly.'

"I laughed out loud when I read this assertion by Laubach: 'We can do more for the world with prayer than if we were to walk into Whitehall, London, or the Kremlin in Moscow, and tell those men [sic] what to do---far more! If they listened to our suggestions, we would probably be more or less wrong. But what God tells them, when they listen to Him, must be right. It is infinitely better for world leaders to listen to God than for them to listen to us.' These lines made me laugh because I thought how right Laubach was. I remembered how many times I held doggedly to an opinion about a political matter only to learn how misguided and wrong my view had been. How much better it is to humbly and trustingly place matters in God's hands, confident in His infinitely superior judgment. And how much better it is to put frail human leaders in God's hands than trying to manhandle them with my very fallible opinions and judgments!"

Of course, Christians can and should be involved in political affairs. But, except in the rarest of instances, no official church body, clergy person, or Christian leader should say more than, "As Christians, we think this. But we can't claim the imprimatur of heaven for it."

Most of the time, except on those things directly addressed in Scripture, nobody has the authority to say, "Thus says the Lord..." That's not only preumptuous. It borders on the idolatrous, idolizing either our selves and our own intellects or idolizing the ideologies to which we dare to subordinate Jesus Christ.

Thank you, Charlie, for your thoughtful comments. I hope that I have clarified my own views here. Balmer will have to answer for himself. But I don't think he was trotting out the theocracy charge. But his piece had good insights in it, I thought, which triggered some reactions from me.

[By the way, the link to my Laubach piece is: http://markdaniels.blogspot.com/2003/03/learning-to-pray-from-man-who-taught.html

Mark

Charlie said...

Maybe I'm misunderstanding Balmer. What does this statement mean, if not that the religious right is busy creating a theocracy?

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.

As to your second point, I agree completely.

Mark Daniels said...

You know what, Charlie? I was reading too much Daniels into Balmer. I quickly re-scanned his article earlier and totally missed that paragraph. You were right and I was wrong. But he still has to defend himself.

Mark

reader_iam said...

Hey, Mark:

I ended up linking to this in a comment on one of Cal's posts today, though it caught my eye over the weekend.

I appreciated the thoughtfulness of your post, as always.

reader_iam said...

Hey, Mark:

I ended up linking to this in a comment on one of Cal's posts today, though it caught my eye over the weekend.

I appreciated the thoughtfulness of your post, as always.

Mark Daniels said...

Reader:
Thank you so much! What you wrote over there was really an honor.

God bless!

Mark