I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political Right. The hard Right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.
– Billy Graham, Parade Magazine, 1981
Billy Graham prophetically saw the fateful coupling of partisan politics and religious fundamentalism. When political strategists talk about religious communities, they speak of them as voting blocks—groups of persons who can be swayed by particular kinds of rhetoric to vote in particular ways that ultimately serve partisan ends. Specifically, when political causes and goals are expressed in religious terms, political commitments get fused with religious faith commitments.
Eventually, members of religious communities are manipulated into believing that “our party” is God’s party, and the “other party” is God’s enemies. Those that vote for candidates of the other party do not simply disagree with “our party,” they disagree with God and thus cannot be “real” Christians. The manipulation is complete when groups take it utterly for granted that no “real” Christian could vote for them.
Now, fast forward a generation and consider the words of Graham’s son, Franklin, when recently asked to weigh in on presidential politics. His comments were both sadly predictable and rather different than the words spoken by his father. As his father prophetically observed, those who were judged by the younger Graham to be the “real thing” happily coincided with his political views. There is no question, according to Graham, that presidential candidate Rick Santorum is the “real thing.” As to Newt Gingrich, he is a Christian who has confessed his sins and is, apparently, up to snuff. On the President, he observed that Obama claimed to be a Christian and, so, he would take him at his word. Except … his churchgoing habits were suspect and there were reasons to be skeptical about the President’s Christian faith.
Of course, Graham could not resist seeking to establish the “otherness” of Obama by matter-of-factly observing that “Under Islamic law, the Muslim world sees Barack Obama as a Muslim. … That’s just the way it works.” Graham used coded words to say, “he is not like us.” Have we gotten to the point that we have so totally confused our politics and our theology that we can no longer really imagine that those on the “other side” might just be good Christian folks who come to different conclusions than we do?
In our book, Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, Mike Slaughter and I explore how deeply the rancorous partisanship of our culture has infected our churches. The consequences are increasingly bad for the church, with folks in the next generation leaving the church in droves. One of the most common complaints among the departed is that churches have become too political and, so it seems to them, more interested in partisan ideology than the imitation of Jesus.
Imagine a world in which the son lives out the wisdom of his father’s words—no religious bigotry of any form, and certainly no marriage of fundamentalist faith and the hard Right—or the hard Left either, for that matter. Such a world would mean giving up the appearance of a power broker, being seen as a “game changer.” It would mean recognizing that not all Christians believe the same, and that questioning those who do not agree with us, at the end of the day, is more destructive than helpful.
Chuck Gutenson is author, with Michael Slaughter and Robert P. Jones, of Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, which explores these themes in more detail. Check it out here, then join the conversation here.