I am not a big political person. Politics have never been how I seek positive change in culture, even as a pastor. I have never publicly endorsed any candidate or party. Among Christian leaders and ordinary churchgoers of my generation and younger, I am not alone in my attitude. That revelation might surprise the participants in our research, who resoundingly declared Christians too involved in politics.
Throughout our research, we heard people who consistently took issue with Christians “legislating morality” and “imposing their views” through politics. Half of our national phone survey participants (49%) agreed with the statement, “I don’t like how some Christian groups meddle in politics.” Our survey found that men, in particular, deride Christian involvement in politics, a fact that proved true across our focus groups as well. Men had much more to say than women about their frustration and opposition to Christian involvement in politics.
Of all the groups we convened, the men in Austin were probably the most passionate and opinionated about the involvement of Christians in politics. In most places in Texas, politics and religion bleed red, but Austin is an openly avant-garde exception. One guy described being dragged to church as a child: “It just felt silly,” he said. “I didn’t believe it. I thought it was make-believe stuff that they were insisting was real but obviously it wasn’t…I would insist on going in a full Darth Vader costume when they would take me as a little boy. They posted my picture on the church bulletin.”
In Austin, our facilitator opened by asking for everyone’s thoughts on Christianity in general and Jesus in particular. At one point she asked, “Anyone else have an element of Christianity you find distasteful?”
After “evangelists” and “brimstone,” one guy said, “Legislating morality.” Another added, “They’ve gone way beyond what I want the government deciding.”
The facilitator asked, “Is it Christianity using politics or politics using Christianity?”
“Both, without a doubt.”
“Politicians use the affiliations to get into a different base of people to use. The people use the politicians to get things enacted like… not being able to buy liquor on Sundays. It used to be whole sections of grocery stores you couldn’t go into.”
“Some counties where you can’t even buy liquor at all.”
“You didn’t use to be able to buy cat litter on Sundays. They relaxed that.” “What?”
“The Bible Belt… technically you could only buy food or medical oriented things. South Carolina, when I lived there was a lot the same way that was 20 years ago here.”
Multiple participants saw Christians using legislation to control their lives. One guy put it like this:
“I understand that there are some issues, let’s say whether it’s abortion is right or wrong. If you think it’s wrong you should just cut out. I can’t play poker online anymore, I can’t buy alcohol on Sundays without restrictions. I can’t smoke pot. What I watch on TV gets restricted. I can tell you I attribute it to Christians. I sure as heck don’t want a bunch of Christians deciding that level of what I can do in my life. There are some big picture things that we probably all have to agree whether they are okay or not. The Christians are going way beyond that, and this gets into the politics and defining what is okay and what’s not okay for people to do. I just think that’s nuts.”
These post-Christian participants repeatedly found the political shenanigans of the “religious right” frustrating if not downright scary. One Austin man found evangelical Christians more frightening than the dictators of North Korea and Iran:
“As far as what scares me about groups of people in the world that have the potential to do harm, you have radical Muslim extremists and evangelical Christians. Then there’s a big drop off, and you get into maybe military dictators, North Korea, and Iran. Then you have everybody else slowly falling down there. But from everything, and I watch the news all day every day at work, I read a lot. As far as groups that scare me more than a little, and cause [things] to happen that I don’t want to have happen.”
When one group member countered that evangelical Christians aren’t out to blow up the world, another argued that “they have an awful lot of power and they’re using it in a way that I don’t think any group should be using it.”
“In what way?”
“In terms of imposing their view of the world on the world, on everybody else. There’s [sic] not other groups out there that are trying to impose their views…Just steamrolling over everybody. Again that’s extreme and that’s the radical people in the group.”
“Which radical people?”
“High-level Republican leaders,” “Pat Robertson,” “Westboro Baptist,” and “Jerry Falwell.”
Reading these exchanges, I often wondered if I had flipped to the “WE HATE FOX NEWS” channel. The Austin guys apparently had watched an assortment of talking-head cultural commentators and assumed they determined the agenda of the entire Christian community. We asked who worries these guys, and they’re like, “Jerry Falwell.” And I’m thinking, “How long has he been in heaven with Jesus now?”
If you weren’t around or not paying attention during the 1980 United States presidential elections, Jerry Falwell epitomized what went down during that era, when a few men swayed American history and reshaped how people think about politics and religion for more than a generation. Falwell was one of the original leaders of the religious Right and a co-founder of the Moral Majority, a political advocacy group organized to battle for conservative values.
Another evangelist of the day, James Robison, was at ground zero of what became the religious Right. In 1979 he was one of a handful of TV evangelists with a national audience. At a time when the issue of gay rights was grabbing public attention, Robison was known for daring Christians to “come out of the closet.” Following an on-air sermon where he quoted the first chapter of Romans—a passage that calls homosexuality sin—censors kicked him off a major Dallas TV station under what was known as the Fairness Doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While you might not like what Robison said, you should get First Amendment chills he was not permitted to say it.
Hopping mad, Robison made “Freedom of Speech Is Freedom to Preach” his new bumper sticker. He invited leaders like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, Ralph Reed, and Jerry Falwell to a Freedom to Preach rally in a Dallas stadium. These men met backstage with a presidential candidate named Ronald Reagan and decided to back him. The religious Right was born.
CHRISTIANS AND POLITICS
Even at the peak of the religious Right, Christians never formed a unified front. Christians are anything but a homogeneous voting bloc. We’re a messy mix of the entire political spectrum. And when it comes to how we engage politically, you’ll find Christians wandering down four well-worn paths:
- Some fight. These folks rally the troops, wage the culture wars, elect candidates to office, put morality to a vote, and try to take back lost ground by punching forward.
- Some surrender. This group takes the opposite approach. Sensing that the battle is lost, they surrender the controversial aspects of Christian belief. They give up and give in hoping no one else gets hurt.
- Some flee. These people escape as far and fast as possible. They unplug from media, move out of the city, and protect their family from the disease of culture by hunkering down until Jesus comes back, which some are sure is soon.
- Some convert. This minority chooses to live as missionaries within the dominant culture, seeking the common good of all, winsomely living out biblical principles, and seeking to evangelize people and cultures so they are transformed.
These markedly different options mean that we can often find ourselves parting ways politically with Christians whom we otherwise agree with in profound ways. But what is the right response?