I came across this interesting blog bit the other day:
“A few days ago a prominent woman in my church posted a note on the internet for her friends to see. She stated that her 4 year old son liked to listen to Rush Limbaugh with her, and he had just told her “I hate liberals.” This excited her and she boasted of how proud she was of her little 4 year old. Because of her position in my church, it made me wonder if she’d welcome someone who was liberal into our church. I don’t consider myself a liberal, but it sure doesn’t make me feel welcome to be around her.” –Eugene Redstone
Versions of this story are surprisingly common; it is shockingly easy to find Christians who unquestioningly support polarizing political figures and denigrate people with opposing views. As best I can tell, the motivation here is one of pragmatism; an, “us vs. them,” mentality that suggests some need to achieve victory at all costs in public discourse. People like Michael Moore or Ann Coulter bring large audiences with them, so they are seen as powerful allies in the battle against various opponents of Christian views.
This tendency to gather power is all too human. Since the days of Babel, we have known the key to godlikeness lies in collective action – that strength is found in numbers. Fierce joy takes hold deep within us when our power combines with others to produce overwhelming force, and once tasted it is hard to set aside.
I think this is why team sports retain such popularity in an increasingly individualized culture. When I played tennis at a club, several times I was pitted against players considered much better than me and yet came out the winner. I certainly enjoyed the experience, but it didn’t hold a candle to the joy and celebration I felt when my high school tennis team defeated our most hated rivals, even though the player I beat was nowhere near as strong as those at the club. Merely being a part of something larger than myself made my personal experience all the richer, even if my contributions were less. And it certainly is more satisfying to, “win,” against a lot of people rather than a few.
The problem is that this same attraction carries over into much more serious and ethically problematic realms as well, especially that of politics. Few historical themes or subjects carry more weight and influence than the human tendency to gather power to achieve personal ends. Books like Power Broker, The Discoverors, and Team of Rivals highlight in dozens of ways the simple fact that history’s most prominent figures and accomplishments flowed directly from the ability to consolidate and direct the power of numbers.
Here’s the problem. The power of numbers placed in human hands carries more weight, but has just as much potential for sin. It is a formula for destruction.
After all, greater numbers make it harder to control your message and the individual purposes of members. Greater numbers are higher profile, and so hypocrisy is more public. Greater numbers make it harder to slow group momentum if leaders make poor decisions. Greater numbers carry a responsibility that is too often poorly considered before the gathering process begins.
This principle has all sorts of implications for leaders in general and Christian leaders in particular. For now, I’d like to focus on one of the most important areas in which we should be watchful over our tendency to gather allies, and it is this: For the Christian, the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend.
Seems simple, right? But it is not. I fear the church has grown obsessed with reforming the world through social movements and political power. This obsession has seemingly helpful desires at the core; to protect the unborn, to proclaim the gospel freely, to teach our children in the way that seems best to us, and so on.
However, it has led us to lower the standards of who is “in” and who is “out” of our movements. Less and less do we care about the holistic life message of those we accept as allies, and more and more do we care about their ability to weaponize our ideas and rally new troops. Less do we care that they are holy, and more do we care that they are powerful.
Nowhere is this more clear than in political rhetoric. Figures such as Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter or Ralph Nader and Michael Moore find wide acceptance in different sectors of Christianity, to the point that they are held in honor by those groups with a sort of “one of us” mentality. At times it even seems we give them the right to speak for us; “Did you see what they said in their most recent article? They articulate the Christian position so well!”
Don’t kid yourself… we tolerate them not because, “everyone has a few flaws,” or because despite their failings they articulate a healthy life perspective. We tolerate them because they are powerful, because they are the enemy of my enemy, because they are weapons in the great pragmatic project that is Christian politics.
We gloss over arrogant statements from Rush Limbaugh because he agrees with us politically, not caring that his goals are political rather than spiritual. We close our ears when Glenn Beck spews insults, without worrying how a person asking spiritual questions will view our promotion of his statements elsewhere. We pay money to support anything Michael Moore does or says because it advances the social justice cause.
Meanwhile, we vilify people in the church -people whose main purpose in life is to proclaim the gospel!- who might have an interest in correcting social wrongs, or who think global warming is scientifically unproven, or who believe the theology of the church statement of faith is important, or who think healthcare should be free. We let political perspectives dictate value.
Brothers and sisters, this should not be.
If you care about proclaiming God’s gospel of mercy for sinners, and if you claim the Great Commission as your central rallying cry, you should care about who your allies are. You should care that their priorities are in order. You should care that their life theme is love in obedience of God’s will and directed by His Truth. You should care that they support godliness in all its forms and decry sin in all its forms.
You should NOT care about the spice of their rhetoric, the size of their radio audience, or the target of their vitriol. You should not entirely divorce their words from the way that they live. And if you do have reason to support the words of popular figure, be extremely honest about their failings as well.
Why? Because if you believe in a sovereign God, faithfulness is always more important than numbers.
That there is power in numbers is a lesson humans have internalized since the Tower of Babel. Let us hope the Church internalizes the other lesson of that place as well.