Will the New Religious Right Make the Same Mistakes as the Old?

Are we witnessing a new awakening of religious conservatives to the political process?  Is that a good thing?  Or, rather, what safeguards might we put in place, what lessons might we learn from past failures, in order to make sure that this is a good thing?

I’m not eager to write another post that references Robert Jeffress, but the unflappable pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas raised several important issues when he promoted Rick Perry and called Mormonism a “cult” at the Values Voters Convention.  Those issues were: (1) Is it legitimate to include religious beliefs as a part of our assessment of a candidate? (2) Is it fair and accurate to say that Mormonism is a cult? And (3) is it appropriate for pastors to endorse political candidates?

I agree with Jeffress that “a candidate’s faith matters” and voters are not remiss in considering a candidate’s faith and how it might shape his or her actions (although I believe we should have greatest concern for the candidate’s values and character and how they would shape the candidate’s policy decisions and responses in crisis).  I do not believe a Christian should vote for a candidate simply because he is a Christian; but given equally qualified candidates, I cannot condemn a voter for choosing the one who shares his deepest convictions and intuitions about the world.  I just happen to believe that Mormons share an enormous expanse of moral, familial and social values with evangelicals, so I disagree with him that Mitt Romney stands at a disadvantage on this point.  Also, I’ve explained in two posts (here and here) why I disagree with the characterization of Mormonism as a “cult.”  But I’ve not yet addressed the third issue.  Should pastors endorse candidates?

Jeffress himself sought to thread the needle, as this video of his address to his congregation shows.  He would, he says, “never officially endorse anyone…from the pulpit of this church,” both because the IRS frowns upon it and because “this pulpit is too sacred” and “that’s not what the pulpit is about.”  At one point, Jeffress said, he did not believe that he would ever personally endorse a candidate either.  In the midst of a series of sermons called “Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” however, pastor Jeffress became convinced that we as individual Christians “have the responsibility to stand up, to push back against evil.”  So as “a private citizen and an American,” Jeffress decided that he should “use whatever influence I might have to try to elect a godly leader and place him in the White House.”  So he has personally endorsed Rick Perry, but will not officially endorse him from the pulpit — and people of all political persuasions, he said, should find a home at First Baptist, where the primary purpose is always to preach the Word and the gospel of Christ.

Now, before people get carried away, this is neither theocracy nor dominionism.  Jeffress is not saying that only Christians should have positions of authority, or that Christians are called to exercise dominion over all the levers of power.  Neither is he saying that the religious freedoms of non-Christians should be curtailed.  He’s merely saying that our culture and our community as a nation have so deteriorated that it’s especially urgent right now to elect a godly leader.  Since God blesses nations that honor him and honor his Word, “we must have godly leaders who embrace biblical principles.”

This is a live issue.  The federal government’s reckless mismanagement of the economy, and the continued deterioration of our collective moral culture, has inspired a new wave of conservative Christian political activism — especially noteworthy amongst pastors.  Take Iowa, for example.  According to pastor Jamie Johnson of Story City, Iowan pastors were roused from their apolitical slumbers by legislation and a Supreme Court decision that seemed to attack Christian values and freedom of religion.  Three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled with the majority were voted off the bench, and now pastors are “much more enthused than they were four years ago” to shape the election’s outcome.

Since some congregants prefer their pulpits without politics, says Kerry Jech of Marshalltown, Iowa, pastors like himself “take the fire” for their political activities. Yet the issues at stake in the 2012 election are so important, he says, that he only wishes more would join the cause, for failing to engage the political sphere in these circumstances is failing to defend the flock.

And the phenomenon is not limited to highly politicized states like Iowa. In a Los Angeles Times report on pastors “increasingly heeding a call to speak out on politics,” Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, describes the nascent national movement of pastors engaging the political sphere as a reawakening of the Religious Right in a more localized, grassroots form—”a congregational version of the tea party.”  Call it the Holy Water Party.  Pastors who once avoided his calls are now calling him and asking to get involved.

Whether this constitutes a healthy development in the life of the American church, or a distraction from its eternal purpose, is a matter of dispute even amongst Christian conservatives.  Controversial new books on the essential mission of the church and starkly different responses among evangelicals to religious-political events like Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally and Rick Perry’s “Response” suggest that pastors and religious leaders are finding it difficult to separate the right and wrong ways of bringing faith and politics together.

Seven out of 10 pastors, according to a 2010 LifeWay Research study, agree with pastor Jeffress that ministers should not endorse candidates from the pulpit.  It’s one thing to educate and mobilize a congregation around biblical principles of life, family, and fiscal stewardship, they say, but quite another to make the church an instrument of political operators.

Obviously evangelical pastors, as Johnson says, “see this as more than just another presidential election.”  We have not typically condemned African-American pastors who mobilize their churches on behalf of the candidates they believe will best serves the needs of their community.  Should we condemn white evangelical pastors who promote candidates who, they think, will best serve to restrengthen the moral and spiritual musculature of the nation?  Is this wrong, or manipulative, or a betrayal of the church’s fundamental mission?  What do you think?  When churches enter the political fray, do they compromise their witness and make the proper party affiliation a prerequisite for entering the kingdom?  On the other hand, in the midst of social disintegration and the erosion of Judeo-Christian values, can churches and their pastors afford to stand apart from the fray, or do their moral and theological commitments compel action?

It’s going to take time to answer these questions.  And the longstanding institution of the Democrat African-American Church, and of course the multitude of heavily-liberal-leaning Mainline churches, show that these are questions both for those on the Right and those on the Left.

My concern is twofold.  First, I do believe we desperately need leaders who honor the principles of honesty, humility, integrity, stewardship, individual initiative and collective responsibility for the present and future generations.  We stand in perilous times.  Yet I’m not sure we need to endorse specific candidates in order to achieve that end.  Second, our spiritual circumstances are far more important than our political circumstances, and I don’t want for conservative Christendom, or particular denominations, or even particular churches, to become colonies of one or another political party.  It becomes a barrier to believers or would-be believers who will not pass through the doors of those churches because they know their hothouses of conservative or liberal political activity.  It raises suspicion that we are more about access and influence than we are about confession and service.  It hobbles the church’s prophetic voice, should the church ever have to speak against the party or the politicians it supported.  And it ties the witness of the church to the performance of a particular party and its politicians.  If that party, or that candidate, proves hypocritical, then the churches that held him forth as a secular savior will find themselves wounded.

No person should be made to feel that she must accept Rick Perry in order to accept Christ.  And, as conservative as I am, I don’t want people to feel that they must share my political convictions in order to share the faith that God has given me in Christ.  A grassroots movement amongst conservative Christians — a Holy Water Party, if you will — could, could, be a deeply restorative thing.  But it must not confuse the Gospel of Christ with the gospel of the free market, and it must make perfectly certain that it retains the prophetic distance to critique and hold accountable leaders on both sides of the aisle.

Note: This post drew in small measure on a piece I wrote in World Magazine — and that piece, by the way, should (as I indicated to the editor) have credited Joel Hannahs for his reporting from Iowa.

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  • Tim, great overview. I would probably word some things different, but the general thrust of this is really good to see and be reminded of. Thanks.

  • “When churches enter the political fray, do they compromise their witness and make the proper party affiliation a prerequisite for entering the kingdom?”

    I think we compromise our witness when we elevate our support for a candidate to such a high level that we call on Christians to eliminate theological terms merely because they’re offensive to the candidate we support and then call fellow Christians “unChristian” unless they call Mormonism “unChristian” rather than a cult. This is the sort of thing that compromises our witness.

    You say, “It raises suspicion that we are more about access and influence than we are about confession and service” and “spiritual circumstances are far more important than our political circumstances” yet your passion to defend Mitt Romney regarding Mormonism gives the impression that this is precisely what you are willing to do. Your political interests trump your spiritual interests by calling for Christians to change their theological terms so as not to offend your preferred choice for president. It may be a slick turn of phrase to claim a “cult” of Rick Perry and to call others “unChristian” merely for stating that Mormonism is a cult but this also undermines a fundamental mission of the church, namely teaching truth regarding Christ, which you aim to defend in this piece.

    “No person should be made to feel that she must accept Rick Perry in order to accept Christ.”
    This is a completely absurd red herring. As you know, no one has said that a person must accept Rick Perry in order to accept Christ. Making foolish choices regarding who to support for president does not cause someone to lose their salvation.

    I am a faithful and supportive reader of almost every single article you write but you’ve become unhinged when it comes to matters regarding Romney and Perry. These are the least substantive articles with the weakest argumentation I’ve read from you. I can say the same thing for David and Nancy French. The Romney and Perry articles from the three of you have been real head-scratchers.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jeff, but your reading of those Mitt-related articles is consistently exaggerated. As previously stated, I never said that we should just abandon whatever offends others. To give another example now: I never said that my fellow Christians are “unChristian” because they call Mormonism a cult. It’s a very different thing to call an *action* unChristian versus calling a *person* unChristian. I think it is unChristian to do many things — for instance, look at a woman lustfully — that I do on a regular basis. I do not believe that makes me something other than a Christian. It just makes me someone who is striving, imperfectly, to follow Christ.

      Again, I’m not asking Christians to abandon “a theological term” because it offends me preferred candidate. It’s not as though “theological cult” is a classical theological term, or a biblical term, or even an important term in the last couple decades. We can replace that word with no loss to our witness and our defense of the truth — not because it offends Mitt Romney, but (a) because it’s misleading, i.e., does not serve the cause of clarity and truth, and (b) because it needlessly slanders all Mormons and makes us look spiteful or hateful to everyone else. I’m happy to be considered hateful for, say, confessing the gospel. But if I’m insulting and offending a large body of people whom I would like to reach with the truth, and tarnishing the name of the church with the rest of the world, all because I insist on using ‘theological cult’ when there are much better, clearer, less offensive terms available, then what’s the point?

      No one has said that a person must accept Rick Perry in order to accept Christ. Absolutely agree — and yet, again, that’s not what I said. I said that no one should be made to feel as though the one is part of the other. You have to look at what’s tacitly communicated, and I’ve become convinced of this over years of writing on these things and hearing feedback from readers. When a pastor says that every evangelical should vote for a fellow evangelical, it does make people feel (people tell me this all the time, and I don’t think they’re lying) that we’re saying that they must agree with our politics in order to be a part of our churches. We can say, “Of course, all are welcome,” but it alienates a good portion of our potential flock.

      I appreciate your faithful readership, and hope it will continue. The Mitt/Mormonism issue has required a lot of posts, since it’s been very much in the air. It will pass. But my support for conservatives and even Christian conservatives does not mean — and I know you’d agree — that I have to agree with everything they do. I do think there are right and wrong ways of approaching these things, and I’ve consistently found the Perry camp on the wrong side.



      • Yes, this will pass. I will certainly not quit reading over this or think less of you, etc. Take care, Jeff.

  • Larry

    I do not favor Christian Coalitions. I do favor politically informed, deeply engaged citizens who enjoy a biblically informed worldview. I believe pastors are equally obliged to be informed and engaged. In public settings (outside of church) they’ve as much right to be publicly engaged as any other. That they are ministers IS of consequence … and ought to be. Clergy played a critical role in the formation and fight for a fledgling United States and continued to serve as clarion voices for truth and justice throughout our history. Narrow partisan issues certainly have no place in the pulpit though broad moral issues certainly do.

    Outside of the pulpit ministers who become politically engaged must, given their stature and influence, be certain that their words and actions reflect a respect for truth and human dignity. As a young pastor I became in rather involved in a presidential campaign. A letter I had written on behalf of the campaign had been widely distributed and apparently generated the effect the campaign had hoped for. Soon I was asked to serve as a liaison with the Boston media and arrange speaking engagements for the candidate in Boston (whose television market includes New Hampshire).

    Dean Thornburg, a friend, had agreed to host a meeting for the candidate (no, I’m not offering the name : ) ), other meetings were also arranged. Soon I realized, though, that my role as a pastor was being emphasized. I was horrified. I did not feel that it was appropriate to advocate for a particular candidate as a pastor, that is, employ my capacity as a minister (rather than as an issues oriented advocate)to endorse a candidate. I prayed earnestly for several days and finally concluded that I could not, in good conscience, continue in that position and so resigned.

    I would do so today as well. I would not, however, retreat from political involvement … even public political involvement as an issues advocate. I would not obscure my status as a member of the clergy, but I would not engage as a member of the clergy (that is, suggest that as a minister I urge support for a particular candidate) … but rather as a citizen who takes the responsibility and obligation of his franchise seriously.

    Would some take offense? Of course. Some are offended by anyone who differs with their opinions. My life cannot be lived in reference to such people. As long as my positions are sound and communicated in a fashion which honors the dignity inherent in every individual, then I serve the Kingdom and the interests of my nation well by being passionately engaged.

    Paul urged the church to “Pray for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity”. If we are to pray for such an end we should indeed be active toward that same end. silence can be as damning as Ignorance … we should be neither.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Excellent comments, Larry. I didn’t know that you had been a pastor! And in Boston! I loved Boston in the 8 years I lived there; attended Park Street the entire time. Where do you live now?


      • Larry

        Near Gainesville, Fl. Boston is a remarkable city to be sure. I enjoy visiting there when I can. Spend anytime at Gordon-Conwell?

  • DougH

    An interesting question, how much pastors should be involved in politics. My own take, on a regular basis, not much – both because they have a rather different calling, and because it gives them that much more moral authority when they get involved on the really important issues. Also, they should probably stick to issues rather than supporting particular candidates – prophets anoint kings from time to time in the Bible, but a) it’s usually at God’s direct command, and b) it rarely ends well, the kings picked by God and anointed by His prophets corrupted by the power of their position.

  • Basil

    I have no problem with pastors who want to be political hacks, it has been happening for decades. Conservative christians are the dominant core of the Republican party, and pastors are an important part of Republican voter mobilization and fundraising efforts, particularly in the south and parts of the midwest. To a lesser degree, the same is true of African American pastors who are an important constituency in Democratic politics (although the Democratic party is a much more diverse coalition, with much less ideological unity)

    However, I strongly believe that any institutions that engage in politics, even the “only personal endorsement” types (on national TV) (like Jeffress), need to pay taxes. Otherwise, they are given an unfair financial advantage, since they have more funds on hand to spend on things like campaign advertising or get-out-the vote drives.

    Everyone should have a level playing field. All of us bear the full cost of citizenship, which is taxes. Tax exemptions should only be given to organizations that actually engage in charity (as in feeding the poor) as the majority of their work.

  • tara

    great piece. good questions.


  • John Haas

    Several issues:

    I’m not sure what you consider the “mistakes” of the Old-New Christian Right to be, or why you would feel the need to draw any significant distinction between the Old-New Christian Right (1970s to 2000?) and the New-New Christian Right (post-Obama?).

    The Old Christian Right (see Leo Ribuffo’s book on that) was distinguished by its anti-Semitism and racism, and the New Christian Right was blessedly for the most part free of those.

    But what is this New-New Christian Right? Other than the fact that Falwell and Robertson are no longer personally at the helm, it seems like more of the same.

    And what is that same? A pained sense that they are “in the midst of social disintegration and the erosion of Judeo-Christian values,” and a faith that, somehow, politics can make it alright again.

    Whether there’s any warrant for that faith, and what the precise route might be, is rarely explained.

    If we look at what the candidates are proposing we find the following: reform of the tax code, reform of Social Security and Medicare, immigration restriction, increased defense spending, perhaps a reinstatement of DADT?

    All of that may be very nice and even beneficial, but its barely distinguishable from George W. Bush’s priorities for his second term.

    What exactly there is in there that that Christians, qua Christians, should be getting excited about isn’t clear. We may think, eg, that “Obamacare” is un-American and the Republicans should be supported because they’ll repeal it, but I don’t know what that’ll do to reverse our “social disintegration and the erosion of Judeo-Christian values.”

    It’ll do a little to get us back to America circa 2006, I suppose, and maybe that’s all the New Jerusalem the New_New Christian Right needs to be satisfied.

    Getting back to the first, taxonomical, question. It used to be said that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. By the 1980s American evangelicalism had become the Republican Party at prayer. If there’s anything new about the New-New Christian Right it’s that it seems hell-bent on turning evangelicalism into the John Birch Society at prayer.

    And yeah, that just might be a mistake . . .

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I think I could pretty much write your posts at this point, John. Surprise me sometime.

      • John Haas

        You write ’em then, and I promise to heap praises on your head.

      • John Haas

        Would it surprise you that I agree with Michael Gerson now and again?

        “It is difficult to determine what tradition of moral reasoning Bachmann is drawing upon. Her argument seems to involve a mix of extreme nationalism and utilitarian lifeboat ethics. Christian morality, in contrast, affirms that human worth is intrinsic and universal. … Bachmann’s candidacy represents a digression in the quality and seriousness of evangelical political engagement. … Bachmann holds her faith deeply and understands its political implications poorly. Her campaign is increasingly discrediting to causes — including the pro-life cause — she seeks to serve.”

  • Bill

    You write, “I don’t want for conservative Christendom, or particular denominations, or even particular churches, to become colonies of one or another political party.”

    Hasn’t that horse already left the barn? As far as most of the country is concerned, evangelicalism, at least white evangelicalism, is simply the religious arm of the Republican party. When I enter an evangelical church, 9 times out of 10, I know what political discourse I will hear, and how I’ll get looked at if I have an Obama sticker on my car. So perhaps it’s time to drop the pretense of neutrality and let pastors say from the pulpit what all of their long-time parishioners know they are saying in “private.” And let’s not pretend that most evangelicals don’t see political engagement as a spiritual act that reflects on your relationship with God. Vote conservative, you and God are tight. Vote liberal, and you are suspect. So let’s liberate pastors to speak what they see as the truth in all areas of life.

    But, and here I agree with Basil, it’s also time to drop the tax exemption for religious organizations. To join a religious organization in this country is to join a political organization. Best to drop the pretense of neutrality …

  • Doris

    I completely share your concern that politically active churches run the risk of compromising their witness. Alienating seekers is too high a price to pay for whatever short term political gains may be achieved.

    You might really enjoy this blog: http://bodybrokenbook.blogspot.com/

    In his most recent post, Pastor Drew differentiates between public and political action. Might help answer part 2 of your question. But he also addresses deeper heart issues underlying our political passions which I find to be incredibly helpful.

    As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts so cogently and honestly.