Wednesday, November 01, 2006

American Politics and World Missions

Do the way we as Evangelicals engage in the political process in the United States, and our efforts to preach the Gospel and make disciples throughout the world, have anything to do with each other? Many times, we like to think that, metaphorically, our "left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing." But, at least from the corner of the world in which the Lord has me working right now (Madrid, Spain), I am observing this to be less and less the case.

Consider, for example, the following article I translated from the Oct. 24 edition of El Mundo, which, with a center-right political orientation, is the second-most widely read newspaper in Spain, just behind El País, which has more left-wing leanings…

You get to the vote through the church

CINCINNATI. – The Democrats may have the labor unions and the environmentalists. But the Republicans have the churches. American churches have become propaganda centers for conservative political ideas, especially in the South and the West.

In Ohio alone, the Patriotic Pastors association has 1,000 members. Each one of them is committed to seeing to it that at least 300 of their church members are registered to vote, which would mean adding some 300,000 conservatives, or, as the organizers of the initiative prefer to call them, "values voters," to the electoral census.

The message of these religious leaders is clear: any candidate who opposes abortion and homosexual marriage has their support. In addition to these, there are other issues, like cutting public spending, or the allocation of social programs to the oversight of religious groups, the right to bear firearms, and tax cuts.

Although these groups are not officially Republican, they totally identify with the ideals of that party. Their influence is not limited to mobilizing voters.

In the Ohio governor’s campaign, Ken Blackwell, has received about $27,000, that is, 25 times more than his opponent, Strickland.

However, the power of these groups is excessive, even in the opinion of many Republicans. Since their influence within the party is so great that, if a candidate wants to win the primaries, he/she must lean so much towards the conservative side that he/she frequently ends up losing the backing of the centrists, who, in the end, are the ones that decide the outcome of the majority of elections.

Such is the case for Blackwell. «During the Republican primaries, there was a race between the candidates to see who was the most conservative. Blackwell won. And now he’s stuck in a dead-end street," Burke explains. On the 14th, after a Republican rally in Kentucky, just south of Ohio, a member of the Republican machinery didn’t hide his distaste for the evangelical Christians (ultra-conservative Protestants) who were leaving the building. "These people are going to cost us the elections," he said.

Evidently, it is possible that they will cost the election for some candidates. But the temptation to court this influential sector is very great. In Ohio, 25% of voters define themselves as "evangelical," and three out of every four members of that group voted for Bush in 2004.

Among those that go to their religious events (to call their ceremonies "masses", which are more like TV shows than religious functions, would be an exaggeration), 97% voted for the President.

Up against this religious wall, the Democrats haven’t had any choice but to organize the labor unions, and introduce initiatives such as a referendum to raise the minimum wage in Ohio, with the object of mobilizing their voter bases. So, in the end, the war between the churches and the labor unions is going to be one of the keys in Ohio on November 7.

The majority of Spaniards are not supportive of American right-wing conservative politics. Up until recently, Evangelicals, in general (not to speak of Baptists as an even smaller subset), due to their miniscule representation among the Spanish population (0.4%), have been a pretty much unknown element in Spanish life and public opinion. For some reason, though, whenever Evangelicals do make the national news in Spain, it usually has something to do with our "less seemly side."

For example, back a few years ago, the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals made headlines in Spain, even though no one in Spain had ever even heard of them before the stories broke. When Pat Robertson declared that the US ought to "take out" Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, that also made the news in Spain. But, more than anything else, since George W. Bush’s election as President, and especially since the war in Iraq, the majority of the times Evangelicals are mentioned in the news seem to be related to Evangelical political activity, and their support for President Bush and his policies.

I consider myself to be generally conservative in my personal political views. I am especially interested in defending the rights of the unborn, and of traditional families. At the same time, I am deeply concerned about poverty and injustice, both in the United States and around the world, especially in places like Darfur. I am in basic agreement that, as Christians, we should not silence our prophetic voice on these crucial issues.

However, I think it is important that, as people who give lip-service to the "core value" of world evangelization, we are aware of the effect our political activity in the States has, at times, upon our efforts to preach the Gospel in other parts of the world. These things are very hard to measure with any degree of objectivity. But, I myself have sensed a decreasing a priori openness to me as an American in Spain ever since the Iraq war. Yes, by being humble, sincere, friendly, non-judgmental and demonstrating a servant attitude, some of these attitudes can be overcome with time. Nonetheless, there are real barriers for us as American missionaries that were not quite as hard to get past before all of this happened as they are now.

Even worse, at times, the non-believing Spaniard who is confronted for the first time with the claims of Christ, must evaluate whether identifying him/herself with the evangelical community will also involve identifying him/herself with American conservative politics.

How do we deal with this dilemma? I do not believe the answer is easy. I do believe, however, that whenever we choose to openly link ourselves as Evangelicals with certain political views, we must be fairly confident that the views we take are really a result of an authentically biblical worldview, and not merely a reflection of certain provincial cultural values. What are our true core values? Does world evangelization really rank as high on our list as we say it does?

Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!

Matthew 18.7 (NASB)

17 comments:

Alan Cross said...

I think that our greatest concern is what makes us most comfortable and increases the ease of our lives. It is interesting that during the 1950's and 60's Evangelical leaders in the South said that politics was not the answer and we should focus on evangelism. That was during the Civil Rights battle. The ones who supported Civil Rights for blacks were the more liberal churches. Then, as soon as that battle is over with, and we were either silent or we opposed justice, we suddenly get politically involved in the 1970's. Why the change? I really believe that in the 1970's we realized that we were losing OUR culture and we were motivated to fight for OUR rights. We rarely fight for justice for others. It's sad, really.

So, while I am also very conservative socially and politically, I generally feel that the Evangelical involvement in politics is more about selfishness than even caring about our country or fellow citizens. Abortion is the one area that we truly seem to care about others, but I really don't know what good our allegiance to Republicans on that issue has done. They seem to be using us for political gain and then not doing anything about it.

I'm going to write a post before the elections on how I believe Republicans are about to have to pay the piper to the American electorate for their mistakes. Sad.

Paul said...

Good words, David. Very good words.

SelahV said...

Bro. David: very thought-provoking article. I knew Americans in general and evangelicals in particular were held in low regard in Europe and around the world.

However, I wonder what it takes to get our message across that Americans themselves, and Christians aren't the enemy. How many of you humble servants does it take? How much humanitarian aid efforts must go through their own political thieving hands and not to their people, does it take? How many Somalias, Iraqs, or even Darfurs does it take for us to intervene in order to calm the waters of hatred against us? I think, until the Trumpet sounds, it will take all we have in our storehouse and more. And I'm not sure America is willing to give that much grain or blood anymore.

Personally, I have nothing of value other than my family and friends. They can have what pittance we make that keeps me one month from the streets in beggars clothes. But I am not sure others would be as generous.

I pray for you, David. I hurt for the situation any political rhetoric here causes in your attempts to further the gospel of Christ in Spain.

I have no idea what God has in store for we evangelical Americans in the near future. Or for what He will cause to occur in Spain. But I know He is able and will accomplish His purpose. With or without my vote. I rest in HIM as my heart cries for humanity. selahV

antonio said...

Excellent points. I recall reading a blog some time back where someone had commented (paraphased) who outside of America would actually be reading this stuff anyway? Well, I will not even start to list the questions I have been asked along those lines and the church. What we do know is that we are being watched.

Tim Sweatman said...

I believe that many, if not most, American evangelicals do not understand the difference between being the American church and being the church in America. Most of us seem to be more concerned with being good citizens of the U.S. than being good citizens of the Kingdom. While we should be good, loyal citizens of our nation, our primary allegiance should be to the Kingdom.

I have long been uncomfortable with the close relationship between the organized church and politics. I believe that such a relationship hurts our witness here at home, and apparently it doesn't help our witness overseas. Individual believers certainly should be involved in the political process, but the church as a whole should be focused on the work of the Kingdom (and not on trying to get the government to do the work of the Kingdom for us).

David Rogers said...

For anyone who might happen to be interested, I just came across this post here that does a good job of saying essentially the same thing I am saying, except in relation to evangelism in the USA, rather than in other places around the world.

foxofbama said...

David: I have submitted a comment to the Washington Post 1pm EST chat about religion and politics today you may want to look for.
Boston Globe today is reporting Richard Land is flirting with Mitt romney and Romney is in GVille SC today meeting most likely with Frank Page.
Mormons and Baptists. Hope you have read Harold Bloom on the subject.
sfox
alabama

Wade Burleson said...

David,

I sat in a public meeting hosted by the Christian Life Commissions of both the Missouri Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention following last Tuesday night's IMB appointment service at the Show Me Center.

Richard Land was the speaker. I like Richard Land and respect his mental acumen, but it sure seemed to me to be more like a Republican caucus meeting than an evangelical fellowship.

I hope your words are heeded. We MUST focus on global evangelism. The gospel is our priority, not a political agenda.

Bart Barber said...

Good evening, David,

I agree that politicians generally like to use Christianity either as a constituency to manipulate or as a whipping boy to employ as red meat for the bitter, angry base. I disagree that this state of affairs comes to be because of our actions—that some inappropriate "friendliness" on our part causes us to be used in this fashion. Consider the way Nero used the Christians, and thus it continues today, regardless of what we do.

If looking only at 2006 or only at the last few years, I can see how one might make the case that the SBC is in some sort of selling-our-souls unholy alliance with the GOP. Looking at it with a longer view, through the lens of a more comprehensive history, I think that 30 years of increasing GOP friendliness is probably one of the most healthy things in our history, considering the fact that it broke a 130-year-stranglehold that the Democratic Party held on the SBC.

Looking at recent heated exchanges between Dick Armey and James Dobson, I think those who suggest that the GOP owns Evangelicalism are not providing clearheaded analysis. Politically active Christians are not, in my opinion, yes-men for the GOP.

Your point, of course, is more about the impact of any political program by Christians upon the cause of world evangelization. Again, pointing back as far as Nero, I'm not sure that we'll ever pick a political platform that will "sell" evangelistically. Neither do I think it wise or pious for Christians to disengage politically—where would we be today as a nation if Christians who lived before us had removed themselves from the public arena? I for one am thankful for people like your father who would go to the White House and speak for us to our leaders. Let us not abandon our nation to the godless.

Therefore, I suggest that we pray carefully, labor mightily to do what is right, regardless of what is popular, and leave the results to God.

Wayne Smith In His Name said...

David,
Well done on these posts and a witness for Christ.
These posts on your Blog, really looks at the Heart of God's People. We are to see How God Addressed things here in this world when He Walked here on earth as JESUS CHRIST. God came down to our level and showed us what he wants us to do. His Word tells us what to do. I didn't see Jesus joining with Politicians to Teach and Disciple the Apostles and the people.

In His Name
Wayne Smith

Bart Barber said...

Wayne,

Jesus did not have the privilege of voting. In my opinion, the Bible contains two sets of political instructions—those for rulers and those for subjects. Jesus lived as a political subject, and He modeled for us how to do so ("Render unto Caesar..."). But we also live with a very full set of instructions about how to be a godly ruler.

In a democracy, on election day, we are all the rulers. As such, I believe that we are on that day responsible to be godly rulers as such are defined in the Bible.

Then, every other day, we are under obligation to be godly subjects.

But that's one man's attempt to understand and obey the scripture with regard to political involvement.

David Rogers said...

Bart,

As I said in my post, I believe we as American Evangelicals "should not silence our prophetic voice on crucial issues."

However, when we "consider the way Nero used the Christians," I think we should also consider the way Constantine used the Christians. From a broader point of view, many times, what seems to be "good news" for the cause of Christ, in the long run turns out to be "bad news." Thus, while I agree we should not remain silent on issues the Bible clearly speaks into, on more doubtful, and party-line type of questions, I think we really need to think hard about what we are possibly giving up by identifying too closely with one party or another.

I strongly recommend the book (it's in the column of recommended reading at the right of this blog) "Why the Cross can Do What Politics Can't" by Moody Church pastor Erwin Lutzer.

Wayne Smith said...

Bart,

I don't know many that speak or write more than I do on all Christian issues. You can check with the politicians on that or ask people that know me. Maybe I should put you on my e-mail list. I'm talking about the SBC being so tied to Politics and politics now deeply imbedded in the SBC. I have seen more FOOT in MOUTH disease from a select few and what I call a embarrassment to God. As David said there are Christian Brothers and Sisters in all Political Parties.

In His Name
Wayne Smith

Strider said...

Great post David! Living in a Muslim Country we cringe whenever our President speaks. What sells in US politics is not going over very well in the rest of the world.
But that is not my business. What concerns me is that until the Body of Christ determines that our weapons are not the weapons of this world we will continue to be weak and ineffective. A few individuals MAY have a call to politics but the Church has no business there at all. We should be about our Father's business and nothing else.

Bart Barber said...

David,

Your point about Constantine is a good one and fits well in my "constituency to manipulate" category. We may agree entirely. If we disagree at all, rather than being at the point of recognizing weaknesses in the current state of affairs, it may be at the point of thinking that we could actually recommend specific changes that would work out better. I'm not sure that we could; it seems that perhaps some think that they know a detailed solution that would work.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that just as American policy is usually formed by self-interest, so is foreign reaction to American policy. Perhaps worldwide reaction is no better a guide to the rightness or wrongness of a particular American policy than is the whim of the American electorate.

Bart Barber said...

Wayne,

Certainly you are right. No political party is the de jure party of God. I think that the best course of affairs for our churches is that we pay attention to political affairs, retain our prophetic voice, never forget that spiritual reformation rather than political victory is the solution to the world's problems, and never get so cozy with a particular political party that we would violate conscience out of party loyalty.

Let us worry about right and wrong. If that kind of focus causes us to vote with one party more than the other, then the fault for that can be attributed to the parties. We are not under obligation to "fair and balanced" but to be righteous and holy.

Wayne Smith said...

Bart,
To that I say AMEN. Brother Les has a good Post and I think God has a Big Movement in our SBC and the closer we get to these Last Days.

In His Name
Wayne Smith