The last few weeks have witnessed a new outbreak of partisan politics and church entanglement. After a welcomed respite of sorts from the more vicious election year political wrangling, from inside the confines of the church yard it seems that the forces are gathering in an effort to make religion an effective wedge issue in the coming political season.
This, of course, is nothing new. From the time that Patrick Buchanan declared the “culture war” from the podium of the 1988 Republican Convention in Houston through the 2007 presidential campaign where Karl Rove vowed never to leave tens of thousands of Christian Evangelicals on the sidelines again to the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama’s religious persuasion, religion has come to play a pivotal role in virtually every political debate.
In just the past few weeks we have seen the subject of the existence of hell appear on the front cover of the nation’s top political weekly, Time magazine, and its author Jon Meacham appearing on a number of news programs. On Easter Sunday we witnessed Franklin Graham, son and heir apparent to the ministry of Reverend Billy Graham, offer a decidedly tepid affirmation that President Obama was indeed a Christian as he has claimed, or that the President was even born in the United States. Then there is the ongoing eloquently-stated case of self-trained and self-styled historian David Barton that our nation’s founding fathers intended for this country to be a theocracy from the beginning. Barton and his most prominent disciple Glenn Beck not only bend every effort to drive home this notion, but they are equally vigorous in proclaiming that any who would take issue with this line of thinking are unpatriotic infidels.
As we trudge steadily toward renewed nationwide partisan political warfare there are reasons why the latest effort to mix church and political rancor is becoming quite troubling. First, there is the current “zero sum game” approach to the conduct of partisan politics. A zero sum game is a reference to a debate or contest where in order for one side to win the other side must lose. There is no possibility of compromise. Secondly, the increasingly well-documented decline in community must be of concern. Thirdly, the discovery by political strategists that personal religious beliefs can be used as very effective political tools is once again poised to be mobilized. Finally, the 10- to 15-year precipitous decline in attendance at mainline protestant churches must be of significant concern to many in the faith community.
What can be made of these and related conditions? The subject “win or lose, but no compromise” is discussed often. In this part of the country dominated by “the Bible Belt” the issue of personal salvation adds considerable weight to the reluctance to compromise. It is very difficult to expect one’s political principles to be subjected to a deal once the issue has been linked to personal religious beliefs. This was apparently the strategy in mind a few weeks back when a conference of 300 pastors in Iowa was convened so that they could be presented with one political party’s political issues.
With regard to the decline of community, Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort,” writes of the increasing segregation of Americans into communities of people who “think like us.” One explanation for this is that by so doing we avoid the task of being winners or the pain of being losers in the increasingly uncompromising contest of political and social wills. Noted theologian Martin Marty has lamented that in recent years this secular war has entered the sanctuary and is threatening to undermine the Church’s oldest purpose — that of building community.
Yet it is clear that holding the religious community intact must be difficult in the face of the David Barton/Glenn Beck belief that skepticism of their case for the founding fathers efforts to establish a theocracy calls into question one’s suitability as a religious adherent or even as an American citizen. Indeed, a study reported in the Sept. 22, 2010, edition of Christian Century by Reverend Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, noted the 10-year decline in mainline protestant church attendance. The decline began in 2000 after a promising decade of stabilization through the 1990’s. Reverend Weems’ speculation of the reasons for the decline mainly had to do with the church’s inability to relate to changing demographics such as the aging of congregations. Others examining similar data claim that the more the socio-political debate within the church mirrors the political and cultural wars in the public square the more people are seeking other options, including congregations that share only their beliefs and that are not affiliated with any denomination.
If there is a message in all this, perhaps it is that it is best to take one’s religious beliefs, honed and nurtured within the religious community, into the public square where such contests belong and the same rules are understood by all. When the reverse happens, i.e. , when political arguments become religious in nature, a line has been crossed that makes a meeting of the minds virtually impossible. Then there are clear winners and clear losers within the church itself. Many of the losers acknowledge their fate and take their faiths elsewhere or nowhere at all.