Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Politics and the Church's Mandate

Given that the primary season is over I thought I would re-post an entry I wrote in 2007. I think this will also help to answer questions I sometimes receive about why Metro East does not have an American flag in our worship center or hold "God and Country" services.

Today (July 16th) I received a phone message that contained a lightly veiled threat. I know that it has to do with this post. As a result I made the decision to remove the name of the pastor in Wichita that the NY Times writer quotes. I don't know what good that will do since the name appears in the Times. However, I decided that being free of a hassle was better than my freedom of speech. I have been warned numerous times in the past to not speak to the person who called me without witnesses present. I will follow that advice.

David Kirkpatrick contributed an interesting article for the October 28th issue of The New York Times. The article is entitled “The Evangelical Crackup.” (The article can be accessed at Kirkpatrick explores the seeming decline of political unity and influence of American evangelicals. Many of you are old enough to remember the powerful political force evangelicals had become in the early eighties due particularly to the formation of the Moral Majority by Jerry Falwell.

The current presidential race has seen divisions and confounding alliances among evangelical leaders. Wayne Grudem, a leading evangelical theologian has endorsed Mormon and former (?) liberal Mitt Romney. James Dobson, true to his convictions is supporting Mike Hukabee. Perhaps most shocking, arch conservative Pat Robertson has publically endorsed Rudy Giuliani.

Of the current political influence of evangelicals, Kirkpatrick writes:“Today the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders. It is not merely that none of the 2008 Republican front-runners come close to measuring up to President Bush in the eyes of the evangelical faithful, although it would be hard to find a cast of characters more ill fit for those shoes: a lapsed-Catholic big-city mayor; a Massachusetts Mormon; a church-skipping Hollywood character actor; and a political renegade known for crossing swords with the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.”

Of particular interest to “Wichitans” is the inclusion of an analysis of a local pastor. This particular pastor has been mentioned more than once in local news primarily because of his involvement in political issues. I have often found his methods and rhetoric to be unfortunate at best, unbiblical and at worst. Kirkpatrick ends his article with a quote from this pastor: “Some might compare the religious right to a snake. We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.”

The problem revealed in that statement and with much of the political activism on the part of conservative evangelicals is that they wage war with the same weapons and attitudes of the left. In the first three quarters of the 20th century conservative Christians criticized the political activism of liberal Christians. Dismissed as “the social gospel” conservatives saw the left’s politicking as a sad accommodation to culture. It was seen as seeking cultural transformation with worldly weapons rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ which the liberals had already jettisoned. Ironically, while seeking different ends, conservative Christians have become accustomed to employing the same means as liberals.

What bothers me about this brand of evangelicalism is not that it offends but that it offends for the wrong reasons. The Gospel of Jesus will be a stone of stumbling to both conservative and liberal alike. The problem is that the Gospel and politics have, in many cases, become intertwined and confused. For instance, when a pastor rants about politics for 30 minutes (instead of preaching Scripture) he is said to have “really preached the Gospel.” This example, which I have personally observed in this community, reveals the sad reality that many conservative evangelicals have equated conservative political positions with the Gospel of Jesus.

Perhaps now is the time for a bit of self-disclosure. I am a flag-waving patriot and self-described conservative. I am pro-life and support an amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. I have taught my children about the significance of Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. We value American history in our home. My wife and I vote and believe it is a privilege and responsibility to do so. I love America and look forward to taking my children on their first trip to Washington D.C. I believe displays of patriotism should be common in the public square. However, God shares His glory with no one. The gathered worship of God’s people is not to be divided between praise for God and nationalistic celebrations. The mixing of worship and patriotism can be a very dangerous thing as Israel has found during her long history.

Be cautious my fellow conservatives. Just as liberal Christians became an arm of the Democratic Party, conservative evangelicals have been, in too many cases, co-opted by the Republican Party. The church must never become an extension of any political party. Politics and the Gospel mix about as well as oil and water. The message that Jesus Christ died for sinners, rose victorious from the grave, and all must turn to Him in repentance and faith or perish is incompatible with success at the polls. How many evangelical politicians have stumbled in articulating the Gospel because they are well aware of the fact that it is a stumbling block?

The bravado and vitriol so common among certain evangelical leaders seems inconsistent for a people who follow a crucified Savior; a Lord who said His kingdom was not of this world. What is more, Jesus resolutely refused to involve himself in the politics of His day. There was much to condemn in the Roman system and yet Jesus resisted the political wrangling so common among many of His fellow Jews. He turned down all attempts to become politically influential. The power that many of His followers hungered for, He rejected. I cannot imagine Jesus saying, “My followers may be down but not out. You never know when they will come out like a snake and bite you!”


MMW said...

"God shares His glory with no one. The gathered worship of God’s people is not to be divided between praise for God and nationalistic celebrations. The mixing of worship and patriotism can be a very dangerous thing as Israel has found during her long history."

Bravo!!! I hadn't yet discovered your blog when this was first posted so I'm grateful you posted it again.

You said so well what my husband and I believe. We had a HUGE outcry from church members this year when my husband (the music minister) did not plan a patriotic service for Memorial Day weekend. He tried to explain how we worship the Almighty God, not America. We can be publicly thankful for the blessing of America. (Our interim pastor prayed a wonderful prayer acknowledging our gratitude for the sacrifices made to protect our country), but we did not trot out the flag, sing "America the Beautiful," or preach a "sermon" on American virtue and honor.

The phone calls and e-mails were nasty. One lady said, "I was mad last year when you didn't celebrate the veterans, then you did it again this year. You need to be chewed out. My late husband spent three years living in a tent in the South Pacific. You're not a patriot. You have two sons that you need to be teaching how to be patriotic."

It's so sad because we love and respect senior adults so much. They just couldn't understand why the church isn't the proper place for their patriotic display.

We, too, are very intentional about privately observing Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Our boys have placed flags on the graves of veterans because we choose to do so, not because they're Boy Scouts. We were proud to show them Washington DC and soak in the history of our great nation. We insist they display proper national anthem etiquette when singing "The Star-spangled Banner."

My husband responded gently to every single complaint. He told them that he has a responsibility to craft a worship service that is first and foremost God-centered. They didn't get it. They just couldn't see that the church cannot be the public forum for patriotism.

I lived briefly in Germany and heard many stories of what happens when the church becomes embroiled in politics. Older people there told me that as children, their Sunday School classes sent birthday cards to Hitler.

Todd Pruitt said...


Good observations.

It's a real paradigm shift for many. I grew up seeing the only real displays of emotion during God and Country services. Amazing grace was old hat. There seemed to be a "been there done that" attitude toward the things of God. But when Old Glory came out the tears would flow.

As I said in my post I am patriotic. I love America. I love reading American history and have little patience for our citizens who spit upon their own country. But I will not bring nationalistic obersances into the worship of God. Pray for America? Yes. Thank God for those who have sacrificed? Absolutely. But beyond that, great caution must be exercised.