Practicality of church and politics

June 3, 2008

church / politics

I believe passionately that the church loses its power and its prophetic nature when it baptizes and blindly endorses a political party, or a political candidate, or even a political idea. We have seen this occur in the United States over and over, and every time it does it blows up in our faces.

This makes it all the more wonderful to see the changes, however slow they may be, that are beginning to happen in American evangelicalism. People are beginning to realize that following Jesus does not coincide with following a party line of any kind. People that follow Jesus, ultimately, should not altogether be on any one’s side, because no one is altogether on our side (if you catch the Tolkien reference there, good for you).

In the last few weeks, I have been encouraged, annoyed, and angered by various ways that Christian engagement in politics, and the view that the rest of culture has of Christian engagement in politics, has played itself out. The Washington Post had a great interview with Brian McLaren the other day, where he simultaneously accepted and rejected the labels of conservative and liberal in favor of the message of Jesus, and it was a beautiful thing. Also, An Evangelical Manifesto was recently released, and stood firmly against aligning evangelicalism with partisan politics. While I don’t think the variety of voices within evangelicalism was given fair treatment, I appreciate many of the stances that were taken and hope that it will lay groundwork for further developments.

But the beauty of the Manifesto and of McLaren’s interview, with regard to politics, is that they retained their power to be a prophetic voice to politics without getting bogged down in blind allegiance on the one side, or in divisive statements on the other side. I don’t expect McLaren, or the signers of An Evangelical Manifesto, to publicly endorse a candidate. This is an incredibly wise decision for them, and will help to keep their voices as free from political garbage as possible.

Then, though, there is the continuation of Barack Obama’s struggles with his faith community. I hear the things that Jeremiah Wright has said, and I agree with many of them. I hear the things other ministers associated with Obama have said, and here is the issue: by continuing to speak about Obama specifically, or to speak in other politically charged ways at the same time that they are trying to speak in potentially divisive ways, they could be contributing to the end of Obama’s chances at the White House.

Obviously, if these ministers help Obama lose the White House they have missed the practicality of supporting a cause by helping to bring about its defeat. Obama took Jeremiah Wright’s comments from before the campaign (surrounding 9/11 and so on), and was able to talk to Americans about race as though they are adults, while still embracing his faith community and the core of what it stands for. I was incredibly pleased by this.

But as the saga has continued, these ministers have continued to talk in ways that 1) make it seem like Obama does, in fact, agree with what they are saying, and 2) are incredibly divisive to large numbers of Americans who otherwise might be united against many of the problems that these ministers are against. My gut feeling is that Obama agrees with some of what these ministers say, but is no longer free to speak in this way because he knows that he would then be associated with all of it, which obviously would hurt him.