Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Funding a Counterfeit Culture War for Christ

All pastors make choices that have political effects. The effects can be easy or hard to notice, intentional or unintentional, good or bad. They can result from intervening actively or from trying to mind one's own business. Whatever the proper relation of religion and politics might be, it cannot require pastors to refrain from affecting the political lives of their communities. Ministry matters--politically, as well as in countless other ways. A wise pastor understands how.
Jeffrey Stout, Blessed Are The Organized (2010)

Technology entrepreneur Ken Eldred is highlighted in a recent LA Times report on the political mobilization of American Evangelicals for the upcoming Presidential election showdown in 2012. Eldred has donated more than $1 million to Republican candidates in the past 5 years, but has adamantly denied that his new organization Champion The Vote has a partisan agenda:

I have the audacity to believe that we can be an influence on both parties. I personally believe that someday we're going to stand before God, and he's going to pull out a ballot and say, 'How did you vote in this election?' And there are going to be people who say, 'Why do you care about that, God?' And he's going to say, 'Because I created that country and I put you in charge.'

Eldred's claim is silly, deceptive, dishonest and truly audacious, especially considering the 7-point platform of Champion The Vote (and her sister organization United In Purpose):

• Right to life
• Religious freedom
• Traditional marriage
• God and government
• Morality and ethics
• Voter registration
• Prayer in the public arena

These issues are all deeply ingrained in the Evangelical and Republican ethos. Anybody who knows anything about the emergence of GOP political power in the past three decades knows that Evangelicals have had a crucial role in this legacy. The Republican party has effectively highlighted their vehemenent opposition to abortion rights (in the name of "right to life") and same-sex marriage (in the name of "traditional marriage") in addition to a fear-based narrative about the perceived extinction of God, prayer and religious freedom from schools, media and the public square.

The protection of religious freedom, unborn babies and the holy marriage covenant (three so-called "endangered species") has become the simplistic, emotionally fused political platform for Evangelicals to rally around. This is unfortunate on (at least) two fronts:

1. As Evangelicals have cashed in on this political marriage with the Republican party (note just how Evangelical the Bush Administration was from top to bottom) over the past three decades, their witness has suffered. The recent Barna poll revealed that younger (16 to 29) non-Christians believe that Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%)--and at least 50% of younger Christians believed the same thing! According to the GOP/Evangelical political platform, unborn babies should have a government protected "right to life," but not so for the poor (consider the CBO projections for the 2009 GOP health care proposal), the elderly (consider the CBO projections for the 2011 GOP Medicare "voucher" proposal), prisoners (overwhelming support for the death penalty), as well as Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, Pakistanis (overwhelming support for "the war on terror") and Palestinians (overwhelming support for Israel).

In addition, the divorce rate in Evangelical churches basically parallels the 50% success rate in wider American society. Shouldn't this trend be more important than the millions of dollars spent on keeping gays and lesbians from getting legally "married?" It is well-known that the GOP, in fact, has used Evangelical fear & anxiety about gays and lesbians to win one election after another in the past decade. The intense focus on abortion, gays and the defense of Evangelical religious language, while remaining mostly silent on these other issues has been a bad turn of events in regards to the legitimacy and respect of North American Christians and their role in political matters.

2. This "culture war" that Evangelicals have been militantly fighting ultimately takes focus away from the rapidly growing class divide within the US economy in the past 3 decades. Multi-millionaire businessmen are funding these get-out-the-vote operations. The more-government social conservative agenda masks the limited government, "trickle-down" economic philosophy that the overclass (top 2%) of wealth earners promote. Because economics is far more complicated for average Americans than (perceived) black-and-white "moral" issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, businessmen like Eldred strategically cash in on forming a coalition with potentially 40 million "biblically based" Evangelicals (recruited from database that includes subscribers to faith-based magazines, members of NASCAR fan clubs and people on antiabortion email lists). Follow the money: the "culture war" greatly benefits the wealthy elite, shifting the focus away from the policies that are dwindling the middle class and keep the poor locked in the basement.

The joint efforts of Champion The Vote and United In Purpose form an abrasive wake up call for all Christian leaders regardless of where they reside on the political and theological spectrum. As Princeton political science professor Jeffrey Stout so beautifully communicated in his Blessed Are The Organized, every pastor and priest is political, no matter what their claims to political-economic neutrality and objectivity are (pastors who refuse to "talk politics" are, by default, endorsing the status quo). We Christians ought to care about social, political and economic policies because we have pledged to love our neighbors as much as ourselves and to be lobbyists for the least of these (who are deeply affected by policies and at the same time have little political clout). A biblically based political ethos must give the poor and most vulnerable of society a voice and priority over those whose money and positions of power have already created an unlevel playing field.

Champion The Vote and United In Purpose are organizations created by and for wealthy elites. Sincere Evangelicals, who want to be faithful with their money and their vote, have far too often become (for most) naively wrapped up in a hijacking of "biblical principles" to serve elite interests. 2012 is already here. Every follower of Jesus is called to engage politics consistently and congruently: our words and actions should match the reality of the world. Let's mobilize to support an agenda that (1) protects life for everyone and everything (regardless of race, record, nationality or species), (2) provides desperately needed accountability for powerful elites, (3) promotes faith & spirituality as vital resources in our quest for meaning and a compelling way-of-life and (4) privileges the perspective of society's most vulnerable.
Epilogue: Props to Tea Party Jesus, a blog dedicated to exposing the rhetoric of Christian political leaders by placing their actual words into the mouth of cartoons and paintings of Jesus. The cartoon featured above is what Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA) actually prayed at a Fourth of July tribute to American freedom.

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