What Is Essential?
Still, we will have to address the fact that some of us have decided that our own important issues are essentials of the faith. We've mentioned Glenn Beck's argument that an attention to social justice marks a church or parish as un-Christian; pastors Gregory Boyd and Mike Slaughter have each written about how they lost members from their large churches for suggesting from the pulpit that God's take on a partisan political issue may or may not be the same as their parishioners. The Rev. Slaughter says that some of his congregants actually came to him and said "You are not preaching the Gospel!" whereupon he told them that he has been preaching the same gospel—the Trinitarian God, the lordship of Christ, the gospel as good news to all, especially the poor and disenfranchised—since 1979.
Most of the candidates in this year's Republican primary have argued that their defense of traditional marriage and opposition to abortion are essential to the preservation of our nation and of the Christian faith. Liberals, for their part, are sometimes guilty of similar demagoguery from their end, and were there a Democratic primary in 2012, we would doubtless hear candidates trying to elevate some of their issues to "essential" status—and attacking anyone who failed to live up to their standards of orthodoxy.
But in this book, we have continuously tried to step back from binary and partisan understandings and back to the Christian tradition itself. If we are seeking to follow the Two-Fold Commandment, we have to agree to remain in conversation with each other even when we fundamentally disagree about the issues. That is where "liberty" comes in; God has made us, as we said earlier, free to disagree, and so that must somehow be a part of God's plan, as inconvenient as it may seem to us.
We also have to agree to love each other no matter what we ourselves conclude about the questions. All of us are seeking to live out our call from God as faithfully as we can, and we are all seeking to live in accordance with our understanding of faith and doctrine. My Republican or evangelical friends do not espouse differing views just to make me mad; they do it because they sincerely think they, their candidates, or their beliefs have something to offer.
It took me some time to learn this; perhaps you are still working on the concept. I was badly hurt by the church of my youth, and for many years I was filled with anger and resentment toward them and toward God. It took some decades for me to realize that those good Southern Baptists had acted in a certain way and asked me to believe certain things not because they wished me harm, but because they were trying to transmit the most valuable thing they had, their understanding of the way to eternal life with God. That epiphany rocked my world and left me chastened and more willing to listen to others without judgment. In these places of disagreement and misunderstanding, it is here that we have to behave with love. We are all making our way toward the light as best we can with imperfect knowledge of God, and only love—as the Captain and Tennille once sang—will keep us together.
All the same we do—and must—determine what we ourselves believe to be right so that we can act, pray, organize, and vote. Moral issues must be lived out in the public arena, since our lives are lived there as well.
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.