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Column: Christian politics create unholy alliances

Posted by on Nov. 9, 2011 at 9:23 AM
  • 5 Replies

They are at it again. Republican presidential candidates are trolling for conservative Christian votes. Christian political organizers are trolling for Republican candidates' attention. (The next occasion will be the Republican candidate debate sponsored by The Family Leader in two weeks at a church in Des Moines.) The Democrats, too, will make some effort to join this game, as they did in the 2008 cycle.

On Religion
Faith. Religion. Spirituality. Meaning. In our ever-shrinking world, the tentacles of religion touch everything from governmental policy to individual morality to our basic social constructs. It affects the lives of people of great faith — or no faith at all. This series of weekly columns — launched in 2005 — seeks to illuminate the national conversation.

Once again, a presidential race is becoming a piety contest.

As an American and also as an evangelical Christian, I can hardly bear to watch this nightmare unfolding all over again. It's bad for America. It's bad for Christianity. Here is my take on the sorry spectacle of Christian politics — and how to fix it.

What's the problem?

Politicians continue to use and abuse the language and symbols of Christian faith in order to win political support. They speak of God, Jesus, Christian faith and Christian values. They bow their heads in prayer at a million chicken dinners. Then Christian voters — perhaps flattered, perhaps reassured — think that these evocations of holy Christian symbols and terms actually mean something.

In playing the God card, politicians often deploy religion as a kind of tribal identification. Sarah Palin was extremely good at this in 2008, referring to the U.S. as "a Christian nation" and to small towns as "the real America." It used to be that only Protestants could play the religious tribalism card in the USA. But that changed as conservative Protestants and Catholics banded together over social issues (such as abortion and same-sex marriage) that hold sway in the Republican Party as well as in the voting booth.

Some conservative Christians are tempted to look for the candidate who is (or appears to be) most clearly a member of their religious-political tribe — rather than focusing on the candidate's résumé, skills, foreign policy proposals or more full domestic agenda. These voters check off the Christian box and look no further, just as some liberals check off a candidate's "pro-choice" or "pro-union" box and do the same.

Today, this Protestant tribalism is being deployed in shameful ways against Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism, for some, marks him as a member of the "wrong" religious tribe to be president of the United States.

It's not just the politicians' fault. If church leaders and rank-and-file Christians were not susceptible to these appeals, they would not work. Head fakes in the direction of Christian symbols still make many Christians swoon. Religious tribalism gets out the votes. It helps that the promise of access to power still intoxicates. When every Republican presidential candidate can be counted on to turn out for the Values Voter Summit, perhaps our current best symbol of everything that's wrong with evangelical politics, the old formula of support in exchange for access appears alive and well.

What's the impact?

This version of Christian politics is inherently corrupting to Christian faith, ethics and witness. It encourages politicians to take God's name in vain, and to do so routinely. (That would be a violation of the Ten Commandments, if Christians still cared about such things.) It tempts church leaders to abuse their offices and abandon their core vocations as they entangle themselves with politics. It confuses the message of Christianity with that of the politician of the moment. It damages the moral witness of Christians in culture. It makes it harder for millions to even consider the claims of historic Christian faith. It drives many away from God altogether.

This kind of Christian politics is also corrupting of American politics. When a significant minority of the body politic votes mainly on the basis of what amounts to religious tribalism, it encourages everyone else to do the same thing. But tribal politics is toxic. It has destroyed nations from Yugoslavia to Lebanon. And it does nothing to bring to office leaders with the skills to actually solve our everyday problems. We need effective leaders, not religious symbols.

Christian politics also contributes to a weaker understanding of the purposes and limits of American government. The United States has one of the most brilliantly constructed political systems in the world. But fewer and fewer Americans understand either its structure or the reasons for that structure. Constitutionalism, majority rule with minority rights, checks and balances, federalism, the tripartite diffusion of power — not to mention religious liberty and the separation of church and state — these are treasures, admired and imitated all over the world. But when political allegiance is determined first and foremost by religious litmus tests, these treasures are put at risk.

We are witnessing the last gasps of Christian cultural hegemony in an increasingly pluralistic and post-Christian United States. There was once a Protestant cultural establishment here. Everyone "knew" America was a WASP nation. But that was a long time ago. We have been adding layers of diversity for generations. The Protestant establishment has been crumbling in stages. Conservative Christian politics fights for the remaining scraps of cultural power, or the appearance of that power. Every time a politician comes their way speaking their language, Christians are given reason to hope that this power survives.

Here's another problem: As D.G. Hart points out in his important recent book From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, evangelicals in particular often look to the Bible rather than the Constitution or the Federalist Papers when engaging politics. But Old Testament Israelite theocracy and the New Testament Jesus movement are a long way from the structures and principles of American government. It takes considerable care and skill to bridge those gaps. Across the political spectrum, says Hart, evangelicals struggle badly here.

And of course, Christians are also being used, just as other groups with aligned interests are co-opted in American politics. Wily operatives and interest groups, usually driven by economic interests, want Christians in coalitions that can win elections. Ideological and intellectual incoherence doesn't matter as long as Christians can be brought into the coalition and persuaded to vote a certain way.

What needs to happen?

Precisely as a Christian, I call for my fellow Christians to try an experiment. For lack of a better term, let's normalize, even secularize, our approach to the next election. Ask all candidates to drop the God talk. Recognize and reject all forms of religious pandering. Punish candidates who make base appeals to religious tribalism. Evaluate candidates according to their past performance and current policy proposals related to the major challenges facing our nation. Read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for a refresher. Pastors, stay home and preach the Gospel rather than being precinct captains. If you want to engage in relevant political reflection, wrestle in your sermons with how constitutional democracy and broad Christian moral principles relate to each other.

Christian politics is corrupting both Christians and politics. Our nation is in too much trouble to endure another round of this sorry spectacle.

Let's do better.

by on Nov. 9, 2011 at 9:23 AM
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Replies (1-5):
by on Nov. 9, 2011 at 9:28 AM
Good article!
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by Christy on Nov. 9, 2011 at 9:33 AM

My daughter was doing homework of the hierarchy of the feudal society and I was thinking on how politics are doing just as described above while reviewing it. It seems that we in a way kept the hierarchy or are going back to it in today's society in which religious leaders get the top cards. It isn't quite as concrete as it was back when that was the norm but it seems to be loosely applied in today's society. 

by on Nov. 9, 2011 at 7:18 PM
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by Ruby Member on Nov. 9, 2011 at 7:38 PM


by on Nov. 15, 2011 at 9:44 PM

Hmmmm, interesting perspective from an Author that considers him/herself to be Christian.

i'd recommend a course in unabridged US History to this Author for enlightenment about how our Founders viewed religion and it's importance to the success of our Nation, ...and i would remind him/her that ours is not a constitutional democracy, but a Constitutional Representative Republic. ...The difference is as important as it is profound.

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