Have American churches politicized their religious mission?

By Diane L. KnippersReprinted from Insight, 2/12/96

March 1996 – Imagine the scene: During last November’s government shutdown – as the President and the House speaker were at each other’s throats in partisan combat – a group of 15 church leaders visited the office of one of the principals in the conflict. They did not come seeking peace between the branches of government nor a reduction of rhetorical hostilities between Democrats and Republicans. Indeed. the clerics’ own words matched the harshest sound bites of any partisan attack dog.

These prominent religious figures presented the political leader with statements of solidarity. They hailed him as “the guardian of the nation” and thanked him for standing up for Christian principles. They declared that “the moral vision is discarded” by his opponents. “In the name of human decency and our earnest faith” – and 50 million American Christians whom they claimed to represent – the church leaders encouraged the politician to hold his ground. At the close of the meeting, the 15 clergy all “laid hands” on the politician in prayer, after which they issued a press release to publicize their political intervention.

Another case of the religious right stepping over the line – say, Pat Robertson and James Dobson and company anointing Newt Gingrich as America’s savior? No, it was a delegation from the National Council of Churches or NCC, laying hands on President Bill Clinton.

These leaders of the religious left, speaking in the name of large, historic Protestant denominations, echoed the slogans of the most aggressive Democratic partisans. They charged that Republican budget proposals would “take food and health care from the destitute, especially children and the elderly, to provide tax advantages for those already well off.” The NCC leaders urged the president to veto almost any budget bill the GOP-led Congress might pass. While this high powered religious delegation offered its public prayers for Clinton to “be strong,” it made no such personal intercession on behalf of Republican leaders.

The meeting underscored the need for warnings against religious extremism to be applied to both ends of the political and theological spectrum. Extremism on the religious left may be seen as even more deeply disturbing than extremism on the religious right, because the left is more experienced in political crusading, more deeply embedded in church structures, better represented in Washington, more consumed by politics and at least equally harsh and partisan.

The Republican victory of 1994 reminded the religious left that access to the Clinton administration was not sufficient. Liberal church groups launched a frantic effort to save their social agenda. Pledging to “mobilize our grassroots networks,” the NCC executive coordinating committee in the spring of 1995 vowed to resist the new “rising tide of racism, fear or hatred of strangers and pitting of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in the United States.”

“We need to stand for what is right, even if it is unpopular,” affirmed NCC President Bishop Melvin Talbert last May about the NCC’s opposition to budget and tax cuts. At a Capitol Hill press conference last April, Talbert joined NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell in calling upon Christians to “pray and fast” during Holy Week against Republican budget initiatives. Both asked churches to hang purple draperies (a traditional sign of Christian repentance) from their buildings to symbolize religious resistance to the Republican Congress. The hijacking of Holy Week took the politicization of the church’s mission to a new level.

This style of partisan crusading not only disrupts normal democratic give and take but also betrays the church’s own mandate. It misuses the sacred rites and teachings of the church to serve lesser purposes. The religious left presumptuously equates the Christian vision of a just society – the kingdom of God – with a particular current structure, the welfare state. It assumes that Christians’ scriptural duty to care for the poor can be fulfilled only by one means: federal entitlement programs. This doctrinaire mentality disregards the growing consensus that the welfare state has failed. It ignores the possibility that Christians might pursue the same charitable goals by other, more effective means.

Moreover, by making a partisan identification of the church with liberal Democrats, the leftist leaders of old-line Protestant denominations hurt their own churches. They alienate the Republicans and conservatives among their own church membership. In the cutting rhetoric of church political pronouncements, these faithful church members are made to appear as hateful egotists who have “discarded the vision.” Not surprisingly, the NCC’s largest denominations are continuing a 30-year membership free fall.

In the end, because every political movement is deeply flawed by human sin, the liberal Democrats almost certainly will disappoint their backers on the religious left. It is not wise to tie the future prospects of the kingdom of God to the constancy of a Bill Clinton.

The tremendous efforts invested in trying to buck up a weak President and his party probably will be wasted. Caught up in the passionate defense of a debatable political agenda, liberal church leaders inevitably neglect what is most certainly their mission. It will be impossible to revive these great denominations as long as the more essential work of the church – evangelism of the unfaithful, Christian education for young people and genuine acts of direct charity to the poor – is neglected.

Of course, these political errors are not peculiar to the religious left. The religious right, too, can fall prey to the temptation of narrow partisanship. There are meetings of the Christian Coalition that hear only the Republican candidates - and cheer lustily at their cruelest denunciations of the Democrats. There are conservative Christian spokesmen who portray the Republican electoral victory in 1994 as a great advance for Christian values. There are many Christian conservatives who are too quick to assume that Christian orthodoxy includes support for term limits, tax cuts and other proposals from the right.

If religious-right leaders cannot respect the necessary distinctions between essential church teachings and debatable political positions, then they too will damage their own churches. The same applies to the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, who are less predictably on the right or left, but very much enmeshed in a wide range of difficult political issues.

Nevertheless, there are important differences that make the religious right, so far, less destructive than the religious left. The former comprises primarily self-avowed political advocacy groups such as the Christian Coalition or parachurch organizations such as Dobson’s Focus on the Family. The religious right is not composed of churches per se. Conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptists or the Assemblies of God are more reluctant to speak politically for their members. The parachurch groups that do speak for the religious right have large mailing lists but no more than a handful of staffers on the ground in Washington.

By contrast, the religious left draws its strength primarily from the bureaucracies of old-line church denominations. The Washington lobbying offices of the NCC and of its larger denominations have more than 100 staffers on Capitol Hill. Other mainline church agencies such as the United Methodist Church’s mission board have hundreds more staffers, much of whose work is overtly political.

The traditionalist churchgoers who are subsidizing the religious left’s crusades are largely unaware of what they are funding. Indeed, if they were aware, the likelihood is that they would not approve. The 1994 Election Study showed that 60% of old-line Protestants voted Republican. A 1990 survey commissioned by the United Methodist Church – by far the largest NCC denomination – revealed that 69% of its members consider themselves “conservative.”

On the other hand, the average Christian Coalition donor knows fairly well what political causes his or her money is backing –and approves. The plain fact is that evangelical Protestants voted more than 70% Republican in 1994.

The ideology of the religious left also exposes it to unique dangers. Because they look to the government to solve so many social problems, the NCC and its allied leaders run the risk of having their mission completely consumed by politics. In this vision, the spiritual ministries of the church itself can seem modest – even irrelevant – against the backdrop of the vast government structures that are desired.

But most conservative Christians seek only a limited role for government. Their political activities are mainly defensive, intended to protect their families and churches against what they regard as intrusions by the state. As such, they would not put vast tax burdens on their neighbors as would the NCC  political agenda.

There is one final difference: Many evangelical Protestant leaders are warning their parishioners against the trap of partisanship. The Rev. Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, has said pointedly, “To wrap ourselves in the flag of any one political party is very dangerous.” This is a constant theme in the writings of Charles Colson, the former Nixon aide and now head of Prison Fellowship. Such voices of caution are rare in the NCC’s top circles.

The NCC is capable of better. Many NCC member denominations have a long history of responsible political involvement. They have social teachings – about rights and responsibilities, distrust of concentrated power, the importance of individual fidelity and self-restraint, and much more – that could be extremely helpful in the current social crisis.

Perhaps the 18th-century Wesleyan revivals provide the best model as to how believers can apply their faith to the world. Methodism as a movement was steadfastly nonpartisan. Its primary concern was the transformation of souls. But individual Methodists eagerly translated their faith into political action. The results included abolition of the slave trade, expansion of the franchise, improvements in prisons, urban sanitation and a host of other reforms.

The kind of society that the NCC, and nearly all churches claim to seek will not be gained through frenzied involvement in the political arena. It will come through the church reclaiming the world from despair and darkness one person at a time. The church’s most potent message, when faithfully taught, is more powerful than all political dogma.