There it was, on the outside of the funding appeal letter, “Help Fight Religious Leftists from turning churches into cockpits for political mobilization.” My first response was to file the letter in the trash can by my desk. My next was to read it. Why? I once served on the board of the organization that sent this letter and these types of extremely partisan political appeals actually prompted my resignation. So, I reasoned, “See what they are telling constituents now. See if you find hope or more of the same in their present appeals for your money.”
The letter told me how three mainline denominations would claim to speak for “you” (if you are a member of one of these congregations) in 2011. How could this non-profit organization help you stop this? Here is their response: “Please join with us in the battle to ensure that our beloved churches focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are not hijacked for ultra-liberal political agendas.” So far, so good.
What follows this call to battle is actually pretty good. “[This organization] believes that churches should be reluctant to speak to political details and instead remain centered on the central Christian themes of salvation, transformation, discipleship, help for the poor, and speaking to social issues to which the Bible and Christian tradition, backed by church members, offer direct guidance.” I like every single word of this statement but one: “backed by church members.” This is the deal breaker for me. Church members do not back agendas, they should be taught the claims of Christ, the ancient-future faith, the confessions and the gospel of good news. They should be called to think about hard issues that have to do with the words they pray each week: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven . . .” Christ is saying his will is directly related to the coming of his kingdom, which is the present expression of the kingdom of heaven (reign of Christ) over all creation. This kingdom comes in fullness when Jesus returns. Members do not get to decide what issues they will back and vote on it. Sadly, in many Protestant churches this is how we’ve done it for the past fifty-plus years or so. We can thank the liberal progressives this letter speaks about for the first part of the problem. They associated the kingdom with, to use a common example, an anti-capitalist agenda. In the process they lost a biblical concept of freedom and virtue and thus embraced a socialistic role for government as the role for the government in solving our economic problems. Then many conservatives reacted in the 1970s and began an activist movement to counter this type agenda which got bigger and bigger. Let the letter of this organization speak for itself here. It says mainline liberal groups and “growing numbers of liberal Evangelicals be hitting hard, while claiming to represent you and the Church of Jesus Christ.” Again, pay attention to the appeal. They want “you” to get upset and support them financially so they can fight your battle against these liberals on your behalf.
How will they fight and what are the issues they will speak to on your behalf?
1. Opposing tax cuts. Liberal churches want to oppose the Bush tax cuts so you must oppose them to keep the tax benefits the Bush White House gave to you.
2. Opposing the U. S. military. The ministry argues that the left is largely pacifist and opposes almost any U. S. military spending or deployment. “They do not want our country defended.”
3. Accommodating radical Islam. The support for the Ground Zero mosque in NYC was a liberal cause and should be opposed.
4. Continued Global Warming demands. Global Warming science is bad science and should be opposed. Liberal Christians support it so conservatives should oppose it.
5. Homosexual advocacy. Liberal elites, at best, are silent about the sanctity of marriage. Gay rights must be opposed and especially “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
6. Neglecting the sanctity of life. This means progressives generally support radical abortion laws that allow the practice even to the end of the third trimester.
7. Open borders and illegal aliens. “Can any nation function or survive without border protections?”
So if I give money to this organization I will promote the opposite agenda of the seven items listed above. They will prepare for making appeals at general synods and conferences of churches in the coming years that reflect this agenda. They will also “counter the emerging Evangelical Left’s disastrous path of conflating the Gospel with Big Government, radical environmentalism, pacifism, and appeasement of foreign dictatorships, whether Islamist or communist. Jim Wallis, Tony Capolo [sic], Brian McLaren are being joined by Shane Claiborne and other popular young evangelicals who have forgotten the past, or never knew the history.”
Why do I draw attention to this appeal?
1. I am amazed I sat in on meetings and watched this develop before me and felt compelled to leave. It still brings pain to me and reminds me of my own journey and alliances. I have had a front row seat to this kind of thinking and practice and had to walk away, and thus lose connections to people, because I could not remain silent. I am more amazed at how I failed than anything else.
2. I do not entirely disagree with some of the points made in this letter. But this is precisely the problem. It is all presented as one big agenda for the gospel against the threats of the left. It is all very black and white and very partisan politically.
I am not sure what to make of some of the global warming science, on both sides. I try to keep an open mind. I am pretty sure the truth is not on the two extremes.
I have no desire to accommodate radical Islam but I do not think the Ground Zero mosque is the big issue here at all. This is a far right “hot button” and does not grasp the role of church and state in America well. I believe our best approach to radical Islam is to work with non-radical Muslims to build peaceful coalitions. Thankfully leading Christians theologians are engaged in this process. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
3. What do tax cuts have to do with the gospel this conservative group wants to defend in the mainline? Seriously? Tax-cuts are an issue of prudence and judgment but not a theological, ecclesial issue. I favor the tax cuts but not on clearly theological grounds. I think Jim Wallis, for one example, is promoting ideas that are not helpful to what he actually affirms are his goals for the poor. I think he is acting in good faith but he is wrong. I think the right way to express this is with civility and with a focus on the kingdom of God, not simply on his bad ideas about taxation and government. He is not a “bad guy” but a Christian who should be challenged in the right way. I witnessed a great example of this at Wheaton College a few months ago when Wallis debated Arthur Brooks on economics with Michael Gerson moderating this extremely helpful evening. If you love Jim urge him to meet Father Robert Sirico and do the same kind of public event. We would all profit from this dialogue immensely and no one would be called names in the process.
4. Then there is the statement about the U. S military. I am not a pacifist. (I have sympathy for the stance biblically.) But this approach shows no respect for the many Christians who oppose war on Christian grounds or those who believe, as I do, that our present wars might not have passed the “just war” test of historic Christianity. This is a healthy, important and ecumenically viable debate. I am concerned when we silence the other side in this debate. The end result is that we embrace war as an ultimate good, not as a necessary evil. War should be embarked upon under very rare circumstances, which is a morally defensible stance. The statements in this letter seem oblivious to this point.
5. The statement on illegal immigration is true, but it is a half truth of major proportions. What we need, and the President has rightly said so, is “comprehensive immigration reform.” This will be hard to get but we must pursue it. Where are the courageous folks on both sides who will seek justice?
6. The sanctity of human life is the one item I agree with this organization about but even here their rhetoric is unhelpful to the way we can win this struggle for the lives of millions of infants who will die in coming years unless we stop the shedding of innocent blood. I am a “whole life” defender of human life. This statement offers the rather typical inflammatory response of the right.
So what is it that troubles me the most about this kind of appeal? Besides the fact that it represents a clearly political stance of its own, it is clearly rooted in fear and the growing need to always be on the opposition. It frames a whole subset of Christian faith in America that I find just as difficult to unity and mission as that of the far left. It reduces the good news to politics and my vote.
Here was the part of this appeal I said above I liked, with the one exception that I now omit: “Churches should be reluctant to speak to political details and instead remain centered on central Christians themes of salvation, transformation, discipleship, help for the poor, and speaking to social issues to which the Bible and Christian tradition . . . . offer direct guidance.” Amen.
As I read the envelope once again I couldn’t help but think of how I could get an appeal from another group which said, “Help Fight Religious Rightists from turning churches into cockpits for political mobilization.” I have seen this problem with my own eyes. I believe it is just as dangerous to our churches as the political leanings of the far left. I have seen the gospel become small in conservative churches and the political, pro-America message become huge. I have lived through this change over my lifetime. I have also seen churches split over this ideological form of faith. I have seen sectarian anger boil over into public conflict between conservative Christians who see these things differently. I believe, when all is said and done, that this approach is just as harmful to the gospel and the mission of Christ as what this organization is opposing by this appeal letter. This approach does not raise funds for ACT 3 but that’s just the way I see it. ACT 3 is committed to one goal: “Equipping leaders for unity in Christ’s mission.” We believe this is the really big idea whether or not it works in fund-raising letters or not. Generally, the truth is that it does not work, which raises a lot of other questions I will keep writing about if the Lord gives me the grace.