Have right-wing politics begun to crawl into the backseat of America's evangelical church as we speed down our cultural highway?
All the big talking heads from those earnest Moral Majority days have either passed away or faded into obscurity. Although they had valid concerns about our country, they tended to rely more on political parties than the Sovereign One Who laughs at them. Even as they preached the evils of legalism, they insisted they could legislate morality.
Despite the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy Hillary Clinton was convinced the Jerry Falwells of America had amassed, we still got AIDS, high divorce rates, high drug abuse rates, high teenage pregnancy rates, 9/11, and everything else with which they claimed God would plague America. Whether these were legitimate plagues or simply the inevitable fallout from decades of sin by people both inside and outside the church, it's hard to say, because for many leaders of the right, rhetoric often trumped discipline.
Partly as an extension of myopic Moral Majority activism, the evangelical church fragmented as idealistic seeker “paradigms” perpetrated pop culture on congregations nationwide. Eventually, the Republican Party was vilified by even some of its own members for bowing to right-wing special interests and marginalizing its appeal to independents.
We got Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the biggest government bureaucracy we’ve ever had, and eventually simultaneous wars in the Middle East, along with ownership of GM and a ludicrous Wall Street bailout. Not to mention Rush Limbaugh.
Indeed, looking at our country today, could you guess the Moral Majority ever existed?
Tea and Pie
Not that all has been lost. Despite its kitschy media presence and illogical blowhards like Andrew Breitbart, our underdog Tea Party movement has been a grass-roots coup of sorts. Disenchanted voters of all stripes have emerged to showcase frustrations about over-lobbied legislators and reckless government spending. Although some Republican stalwarts worry Tea Partiers could actually dilute the conservative agenda, Republicans ignore the fact that they've had plenty of opportunities to right our fiscal ship, yet haven't.
Once the envy of pastors everywhere, Willow Creek Community Church’s now-tarnished seeker-sensitive overhaul of Christianity has inadvertently contributed to a backlash towards a more reformed theology, although some neo-Calvinists insist on dragging their electric keyboards along. The evangelical church has also been invaded by an Internet-fueled explosion in trendy preachers and hip ministries each clamoring for an ever-shrinking piece of the Christianity pie.
Which brings us to that part of the Christianity pie that still harbors lingering angst over how we’re supposed to be changing the world for Christ. Despite being accused of colluding with Catholics, respected activist Chuck Colson has launched manhattandeclaration.org in an effort to rally conservatives from multiple faiths around core faith values of heterosexual marriage, the sanctity of life, and religious liberty. Renowned PCA pastor Tim Keller helped found The Gospel Coalition in an effort to differentiate socially-progressive, theologically-conservative churches from more liberal mainline ones. And the granddaddy of them all, Focus on the Family, has seen the passing of the political-activist torch from founder James Dobson to… nobody seems certain.
Churches Reconsidering Their Political Roles
If any mortal knows the new political role our evangelical community is supposed to be playing these days, they’re keeping it a well-guarded secret. Indeed, opinions seem to be all over the map when it comes to how conservative religious leaders think we should be responding to issues like illegal immigration and nationalized healthcare.
Down at Florida’s famous Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, the death of founding pastor D. James Kennedy, who in his later years turned his pulpit into a hawkish political platform, made way for the comparatively dispassionate Tullian Tchividjian. As successor to Kennedy's staunchly conservative mantle, Tchividjian's reluctance to wear it came as an insult to some in the congregation. They perceived him as waffling on core social principles, a complaint which contributed to a church split which saw 400 people leave last year. How accurate are the frustrations and disappointments of these disaffected members who think Tchividjian is too soft on controversial topics? It’s hard to tell, since Tchividjian's supporters actually barred six rabblerousers from church property, a petulant move which was later castigated by a denominational committee.
Then there’s Keller, who also founded his own church, but on the liberal bastion of Manhattan Island. In multiple sermons, Keller has espoused what sounds to alarmed right-wing hawks like wealth redistribution, where rich church-goers contribute to the needs of less-wealthy congregants to help prevent poverty from disrupting their faith community. Keller, one of the celebrity pastors in the patriarchal Presbyterian Church in America, has also allowed women to serve Holy Communion, which he excuses as an olive branch to liberal urban females. That and other issues seem to have limited Keller's influence outside of reformed circles.
Media darling Rick Warren, pastor of uber-chic Saddleback Church in - where else? - California, has emerged from the seeker crisis he championed alongside Willow Creek with a far more pronounced public image. Warren has tried to play the political field, confounding some conservatives by hosting an election year summit of presidential candidates, despite being accused of playing in to the hands of Democratic political operatives. Some right-wingers have particularly vilified Warren as being too cozy with liberals on environmental issues like global warming.
Not to be outdone in confounding the conservative movement, the Southern Baptist Convention, that historic bastion of conservative ideology, has come out in support of what amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants from Central America. Their reasoning is based on passages like Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 10, which basically say Israel should not discriminate against foreigners in her land.
And then there’s Willow Creek’s own Bill Hybels, who not only has curried favor with Democratic politicians in the past, much to the consternation of conservatives, but has now sided with the Southern Baptists in lobbying Congress for illegal immigrant amnesty. Hybels and Leith Anderson, a pastor from suburban Minneapolis and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, claim to be forging new political alliances with Hispanics, many of whom would probably fit the general profile of conservative voters if... well, they were legal and could vote.
Faith Still Matters
Of course, none of these changes means that evangelical Christians no longer matter as voters. In some respects, it may be beneficial. Having people of faith wrestling over these issues rather than just accepting planks of a political party's platform could even result in believers reading their Bibles themselves to see what God really says - or doesn't say - about legislation we think is important.
The recent support by evangelical organizations for what is considered liberal policy - most particularly seen in the debate over illegal immigration, but also over nationalized healthcare and the environment - represents a marked departure for some people of faith who might have previously been expected to vote along the Republican party line. Having this dependable block of voters now segmented by the issues scares some conservatives who anticipate bigger battles over bigger issues and who think they need bigger numbers of voters to sway influence and policy.
While I personally oppose any form of amnesty for people who have intentionally broken laws to enter our country and contribute to the distortion of pay scales for menial labor, I can understand where the Southern Baptists and pastors Hybels and Anderson are coming from when it comes to respecting the dignity of life, even if you are illegal. However, since all three of these espouse the church growth movement, I suspect ulterior motives are at play in addition to their professed concern over human rights.
Other issues complicate our illegal immigration issue here in the United States which don't negate the validity of scripture referencing foreigners in Israel, but could mean those scriptures don't fully apply, either. These issues include Americans who don't want to pay for the real value of labor, immigration policies which can seem to reward the practice of illegal immigration, the responsibility of sovereign nations south of the Mexican border to curtail their endorsement of their countrymen violating our laws, and the rights of the United States to honor the path to legal residency people from other countries dutifully abide by.
Thanks be to God that we can bring these issues to His throne! To the extent that people of faith whittle away their personal agendas and focus on what glorifies Christ, perhaps the freedom from political partisanship can be one step towards a greater testimony from our lives and churches of His sovereignty and rule over all affairs of men:
1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 "Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us."
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. 5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 "As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill."
7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. - Psalm 2 (ESV)