And a Father Shall Be Divided Against His Son

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.

About Chuck Gutenson

Dr. Charles (Chuck) Gutenson is Chief Operating Officer of Sojourners. He previously served 10 years at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, most recently as the professor of Theology and Philosophy. He received a M.Div. from Asbury in 1995 and a PhD in Philosophical Theology from Southern Methodist University in 2000. A member of the International Society of Theta Phi, an honor society for theological students, scholars in the field of religion and outstanding religious leaders, Chuck is the author of three books (one forthcoming) and numerous articles on a variety of theological and philosophical articles.

  • Pingback: Writers Workshop: Rules for Editing to Improve Your Drafts | Len Wilson

  • Mark

    What exactly does the “imitation of Jesus” look like? Have you read the gospels recently? There are a number of passages that will be problematic for your false dichotomy of “religious bigotry” vs. “imitation of Jesus.” For example, how about the one where Jesus cals the Canaanite woman a dog and refuses to help her because she is not a Jew. Maybe the problem is in the very roots of our religious tradition. Jesus (and Moses and Mohammad for that matter) could be quite the bigot at times.

  • Bob

    Nice, pull a few versus out of the Gospel without the context of the story.

    Matthew 15:23-24
    23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to Him and urged Him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.”

    But lets leave out Matthew 15:25-28
    25 The woman came and knelt before Him. “Lord, help me!” she said. 26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” 28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

    So Jesus DID help the Canaanite’s daughter in front of Jews that have no pity on any Canaanite. Canaanites were lucky if the Jews treated them ONLY like dogs.

    What do you think the lesson here was?

    • Mark

      I did not quote anything out of context–that is the typical accusation that people make when they don’t like the simple facts of the story.

      I don’t think there is a “lesson” here. If there is one, then it’s that this audacious woman helped Jesus to overcome his own bigotry: He only helped her AFTER she “one-upped” him in the challenge-and-riposte game. If anything, then, the lesson is: Be like (immitate) the Canaanite woman, not Jesus.

      My simple point is that to talk about “imitating Jesus” is an amorphous, largely useless idea once you actually read all the gospels in their entirety (instead of just quoting isolated verses about love and tolerance, which are few and far between when you actually study the gospels).

  • Steve Harper

    Hello, Chuck!
    I rarely comment on blogs, but since I know you, I want to thank you for writing this. It’s “spooky” because just yesterday, I used the experience of Christians at the Jerusalem Council as an example of how sharp differences of opinion did not lead to division—precisely because the “sides” didn’t villify each other. And as a result we get the amazing outcome that enabled the Jewish and Gentile segments of the Body of Christ to come together. I’m commenting now only to say “thank you” for offering the same vision to us today.