Being Chops

As an evangelical Christian, I have noticed quite a few discussions and comments in this forum about my beliefs and the political participation of myself and my brothers and sisters in American politics. I would like to give you an opportunity to understand us.

First, let me offer a full disclaimer:

  • I cannot speak for all Christians everywhere; no one can.
  • I define evangelical Christian as one "believing in the sole authority and inerrancy of the Bible, in salvation only through regeneration, and in a spiritually transformed personal life."
  • I am writing of Christians as they are relevant to politics, not of Christ or Christianity, though the latter are much worthier subjects.
  • Having been a member of non-denominational, charismatic, apostolic movement, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, I believe I am qualified to speak with some breadth about evangelical Christianity.
  • I am not interested in learning what you think I believe. This is an opportunity for those who are interested in learning about and discussing the role of Christians in American society to do so. I consider any flaming of Christians to be "attacking the messenger," and I hope the Watchblog manager agrees.

Who We Are

Statistics aside, it is important to understand the self-identification of any group. Most evangelical Christians consider each other as part of an integral group. We call it, as Jesus did, the Body of Christ, and we take it seriously. This is one reason Christians are quick to respond to attacks against Christians in other countries - that's our family they're messing with!

Most evangelicals do not consider the "mainline denominations" to be part of the body of Christ, because they have abandoned what we consider to be the defining doctrines of Christianity. Of course, many brothers and sisters attend these "mainline" churches, but the denominational leadership is outside evangelical orthodoxy.

The identity of Christians changes radically based on where you are. In my hometown, Boston, evangelicals are much rarer than Jews, for instance, and can't even hold a candle to the population of Catholics. The minority status breeds a very different type of self-identification and a tight, trusting community with a strong missional zeitgeist. In the South, it's a totally different story, and the lines are blurred by the social normativity of Christianity. As a Northerner, I often feel out of my depth in the South, because I can't tell who's a legit Christian and who's a poser.

In general, we can get along better with good Muslims, good Jews, good Hindus, etc, than we can with the "poser" type, because the latter has a tendancy to drag our name through the dirt. We also have a hard time seeing eye to eye with pluralists who consider us a priori intolerant, regardless of the actual attitude we take toward those of other beliefs.

Why We Politick

American evangelicals are politically active. Worldwide, this is the exception rather than the rule. Historically, many believers have pulled out of the political process completely, especially in countries where state churches exist. By contrast, we in America believe that it is our right and duty to participate in every level of politics.

This belief is not an accident. The way we understand history, evangelical Christians settled this country as a place where everyone could practice their own religion openly and not be confined by a top-down orthodoxy. The state churches in Europe imposed one sort of orthodoxy that our spiritual forebears rejected and fled, and the governments of communist and Islamist (and potentially Hindu nationalist) regimes in other lands pose an even more virulent threat to the freedom of public faith. When secularists in this country complain that faith has no place in the public square, red lights and sirens go off in our heads. It might be similar to what happens in a black American's head when he hears the phrase "separate but equal".

We love politicians (and athletes) who let it all hang out: Lieberman, Ashcroft, Keyes, and Carter all have a place in our hearts no matter what we think of their politics. Even as a diehard Red Sox fan, I can't bring myself to hate my brother Mariano Rivera, though I'd be tempted to drive a truck over his teammates given the chance.

We firmly believe that the Bible is universally applicable; that any society at any time can benefit from the ideas of humility, order, and justice in the Bible. We also remember the Christian heritage of the United States and Western civilization. The Founding Fathers would have been appalled at the idea that law springs from the populace - they avoided the word and the idea of 'democracy' like the plague, stressing that the constitution was based in Natural Law and Nature's God. This sort of "big tent" deism is a model often followed by Christians in politics today.

What We Want

Since the conservative Christian revolution of the 1980's, people have begun paying attention to what Christian voters want in a way unseen since the failure of Prohibition. These items are on most evangelicals' political wishlist:

Criminalization of abortion. This is an endless debate, but for us it begins and ends with the personhood of the fetus and the fifth commandment.

Small government. We see government social spending as a threat to the church as much as a boon to the poor. We don't see evidence that indiscriminate welfare actually helped people in human ways, and we emphasize good works based in love, not based in duty or compulsion. This is a key difference with Catholicism, where good works retain a role in salvation.

Education. Secular humanism is the prevailing ideology of the U.S., especially the upper classes and courts, and is in total opposition to what we believe. It is not necessarily taught as a belief system in the public schools, but it is the underlying worldview on which the education system is based. This is even more acute in universities. Parents want an educational system where their children won't be taught that we're "all good people", or that the universe is eternal, that species began with spontaneous generation, that premarital sex is good, or that the way you feel is the best determinant of right and wrong. We often see and hear about instances of discrimination. In the 1980's the school Bible study movement took off only after we won back our right of assembly in the courts. We see a systematic campaign to remove our views in favor of those of our principle ideological opponent. Ever wonder why we become vocal?

Christians in office. We don't really think anybody else really understands us, and we want to be represented. This is not an obsession, however, and it won't work for a candidate if it's not backed up on the issues.

Culture of life issues. We don't like it when people play god. The belief that each person has an eternal soul and is a unique, intentional creation of God means that cloning, genetic selection, euthanasia, and their cousins really sketch us out. We believe that a person's worth is determined by God's love for them rather than by their economic contribution to society, and we believe that we should not be in the business of taking innocent life.

Israel. I happen to disagree with the majority opinion on this, but many Christians view modern Israel as the successor to biblical Israel. Personally, I dislike Israel's mistreatment of Jewish converts and their flaunting of human rights and international law.

Death penalty. Drawing from biblical punishment norms and a Protestant view of justice, Christians tend to be in favor of the death penalty. Again, I differ, and opine that it should be reserved for only egregious cases of multiple murders, where the probability of wrongful conviction is exponentially smaller.

Gay marriage. This is a new issue, and it basically has us all running scared. It hit the scene too quickly for leadership to create a unified, sensible response, and the result has been rhetorical chaos. I think that the root of our opposition is basically the fact that God invented marriage (and if you don't believe in God, then we of the Judeo-Christian tradition invented marriage). It's our thing. Get your own. Marriage is not universal - and it's essentially a religious rite that saturated the culture and was recognized by government. Christians (theologians, at least) would be happier to see non-recognition of marriage by government than seeing the government screw around with our institution. Get your own.

Mistakes We Make

We are far from perfect. Our most salient failures to live up to the Bible are:

Racial issues. The divide between the black and the white church is just coming into focus for the American church. In the last three or four years it has moved from side issue status toward the center of attention for many churches. The ingrainedness of traditions on both sides of the black/white divide make integration a major challenge, and one that we can only overcome by the grace of God.

Political confusion. In the South, especially, Christian leaders confuse ancillary goals with principal ones. I was apoplectic when the Alabama Christian Coalition put their taxation agenda above racial unity and reconciliation. When Christians become just another interest group looking out for themselves, it's a tragic loss to society. Imagine if the Pope had gone around the world looking for favors for Catholics instead of standing up for Catholic principles! A religion is a terrible thing to waste.

Social justice. The alignment of forces about 100 years ago pitted the "social justice" Christians agains the "gospel" Christians. This is a tragedy. A quick look around the world shows that American Christians are one of the only churches that earns a "D" grade on this.

Homosexual issues. We have totally struck out on loving gay people, as the Bible instructs us. I've made it a point to make extra efforts to understand and remain close to the homosexuals I'm proud to count as friends, but this kind of personal effort has not been mirrored by a wide attitude of unconditional love. This stems directly from our sinful stigmatization of homosexual sex as if it were somehow worse than heterosexual adultery and fornication. Efforts are being made, but for every AIDS ministry and outreach in Provincetown, there's a neanderthal on the evening news with a sign that says "God Hates Fags".

Divorce. Since Henry VIII, Protestants have tolerated this abomination on a legal and personal level. This and the item above mean we are going to lose the fight on gay marriage. It may take some time, but ultimately we've surrendered the moral high ground and opposition is going to hurt the church more than help it.

Naysayers

On Watchblog and elsewhere, more than once I've heard people say very disparaging or ignorant things about Christians. A common question is, "Why should Christians bring their beliefs into politics; faith has no place in the government." If you are tempted to think this way, replace "Christians" with "liberals" or "socialists". Legislating theology is prohibited by the constitution, but legislating morality is the basis of the criminal code. Christians are not now nor have we ever asked for the Bible to be enshrined as law. Instead, we take ideas we think will benefit society (for instance, outlawing child pornography) and bring those to the table. The only reason you should be afraid of the free exchange and debate over ideas is if you know you have bad ideas.

Posted by Chops at April 12, 2005 4:27 PM