Monday, January 9, 2012
The Evangelical Conundrum
This is the $100,000 question: Can the evangelical leadership unify behind Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Rick Perry? There’s a conversation going on as we speak. We’re attempting to see if leaders can get on the same page.
John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Policy Council
The NY Times just couldn't resist publishing an article yesterday about Evangelical pastors and political leaders frantically attempting to unite on a Republican candidate who is not Mormon. Evangelicals, as is well known, overwhelmingly vote GOP (74% for McCain in 2008) because they have come to view abortion, gay rights, American exceptionalism and limited government tax & business policy as the "biblical" issues ("name one time that Jesus advocated for the government to solve a problem"). In addition to most Evangelicals adamantly believing that Mormonism is a "cult" (see this for one exception), they distrust Romney because he used to be more liberal on social issues before he became governor of Massachusetts (2003 to 2007).
Evangelicals are classically defined by the British historian as those Christians (like Billy Graham, Rick Warren, George W. Bush, James Dobson & Tim Tebow) who consistently articulate 4 main pillars of belief:
1. Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (usually an error-free textbook of timeless truths and principles that can be clearly mined by a self-evident reading)
2. Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross (ie, "Jesus died for our sins")
3. Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted (if not, one cannot have a relationship with God and cannot go to heaven when they die)
4. Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort ("evangelism")
Evangelicals are by and large "ambivalent" in regards to electoral politics, according to the former Notre Dame historian George Marsden (as evidenced by Rick Warren who consistently claims that he is not "political" but vocally adovocates against abortion and gay rights because they are "moral" or "biblical" issues). They overwhelmingly say that "politics don't really matter, the gospel does" (defining "gospel" as a spiritual message with mostly future implications, beyond physical/earthly existence).
Evangelicals desperately want their George W. Bush back. Over the past 4 years, there have been a lot of rumors flying around Evangelical circles about how Obama is "baby killer" who going to raise everybody's taxes ("socialist") and give away the farm to all the gays and lesbians, destroying America from within. Trust me, I've heard several variations of all four of these issues (abortion, gays & lesbians, limited fiscal government, American exceptionalism) numerous times coming from politically ambivalent Evangelicals during the Obama years.
The really sad aspect of Evangelicals being wholly tied to these three issues when voting for Presidential candidates is that they are, quite literally, hardly biblical at all. As Duke Divinity biblical scholar Richard Hays brilliantly conveys in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996), there are less than a half dozen passages concerning gays and lesbians (Hays is actually quite conservative on this issue), no passages specifically addressing abortion, nothing even close that would patriotically equate America as a "new Israel" and literally hundreds demanding the sharing of wealth in Scripture.
Of course, this wealth redistribution is not specifically advocated to run through the government in the Gospels because Jesus and all his original followers were Jews, a politically powerless minority group within the Roman Empire. We live, however, in what is supposed to be a democracy, where at least 75% of voters consider themselves "Christian." The government will "redistribute" income & wealth one way or another: it's what tax policy does. But unfortunately, income and wealth have been dramatically redistributed to the wealthiest 2% of earners in the past 30 years, leaving the rest of us stagnant and locked in the basement.
Above all else, Evangelicals want someone who looks like and believes just as they do. Rick Perry, a fellow white Evangelcal, perfectly fits the bill, but he was such a bad debater that not even a full throttle focus on gays and abortion could save him. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are both uber-conservative Catholics, but, hey, that's a lot better than Mormon in their hierarchy of world religions.
What I greatly hope for during this politically charged 2012 is for ordinary Joe-Evangelical Christians to take this sudden political powerlessness and to reassess just how much their political imaginations really match a critical reading of the Bible.
**What about the systems of economic, social and political injustice that greatly affect millions of Americans no matter how much personal responsibility one possesses?
**What about the plight of poor, disabled and ethnic minorities that suffer in our country...the same population that Jesus recruited for his Kingdom of God movement?
**What about all the other avenues of a pro-life, family-values agenda: the overwhelming lack of opportunities for young people in inner-cities, the death penalty, repeated civilian "casualties" by predator drones, corporate health care death panels & the massive increase in immigration deportations splitting up families?
**What about corrupt "principalities and powers" like corporations, politicians & organized religion who have formed an powerful establishment demanding to be worshipped while holding on to the status quo despite the desperate need for liberation and relief for millions in our world?
**What about all the areas of American culture and political policy where we are not exceptional, failing to fulfill George Winthrop's vision that the United States should be a "city upon a hill," lighting up the world with actions of love and justice?
EasyYolk deeply respects the historic socio-political legacy of American Evangelicalism (their role in ending the slave trade, fighting for women's rights & battling economic inequality) and the enduring emphasis that Evangelicals place on individual responsibility and a critical & devotional reading of Scripture. The "parallel culture" of Evangelicalism is the Christian tradition that I initially discovered Christian faith within and continues to be the tradition that is home to many of my close friends and family members. I consider myself to be post-Evangelical because I am no longer compelled (via study, prayer and critical dialogue over time) by the way they articulate and live the 4 pillars.
However, I cling to hope this year. 2012 can be a great political year for the North American Body of Christ. Like me (but for different reasons), most Evangelicals will not be intrigued by any of the candidates--Obama, Romney or potential third party candidate Ron Paul--as the next American executive and powerfully symbolic head of the American Empire (whose power will affect all of us in many ways). This will be a great opportunity to form coalitions of many diverse communities of faith to powerfully lobby for "the least of these" (Matthew 25) which, by the way, might not exactly be advocating for our own self interests (which is not "Christian": Philippians 2:1-11).
Perhaps an important start to a more just and peaceful world would be to develop a healthy skepticism of our powerful faith leaders (both pastoral and political) who continue to ferment political convictions in old wine skins (mainline liberal Protestants and progressive Catholics who uncritically support Obama and conservative Evangelicals who are convinced Jesus voted Republican) in their quest for more power over the rest of us (these pastoral and political leaders, no matter how "Christian" they claim to be, are what Paul called "principalities and powers" whose motives and actions should be courageously exposed and confronted by followers of Jesus: see Colossians 2:13-15; Ephesians 3:10 & 6:12). A real coalition can only be formed with dialogue...which necessitates listening to other perspectives. Let's strive make 2012 the Year of the Third Way for the politically (and biblically) serious Christian.