Mike Slaughter, Chuck Gutenson and Robert Jones could join Cirque de Soleil if the day job doesn’t work out. In Hijacked; Responding to the Partisan Church Divide, they show they can touch the ground with their feet and their heads at the same time. They bend over backward to the extreme to stay on course with their main premise that American Christianity, evangelicalism in particular, has become more defined by political affiliation than by Christian theology and a desire to advance the Kingdom of God as a leavening force in our culture.
This concern grows from their own lives. Mike grew up Methodist and spiritually came alive at the University of Cincinnati through Campus Crusade. He went on to Asbury Theological Seminary (which experienced some powerful spiritual awakenings and revival in the sixties) and then on to Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church where he pastors today. Chuck grew up in a Southern fundamentalist church but couldn’t escape the tug of Scriptures that speak of the poor. He also went to Asbury and then to doctoral work at SMU. He returned to Asbury as faculty and later worked alongside Sojourners.
American evangelicals who still own the name (and I do) have lost who they are, not remembering who they were. If we will take the time to read “Hijacked” carefully, the authors pinpoint the shift coming in the mid to late eighties during the Reagan presidency with the rise of the Moral Majority or the Religious Right as we know it today. Don’t let the stats in chapter one bog you down. The authors boil them down to the bottom line quite well. Candidates learned quickly that if they made the right noises over abortion and homosexuality, there was a huge mass of voters that could be captured in a block no matter what other issues might be on the line. They also learned that this religious block could be captured through carefully cultivating relationships (Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and Kennedy) with key leaders. These four, and others, did well to lead Christians into the political arena (an evangelical deficiency up to that point) but were ambushed by the seduction of the heady power of Caesar.
Two things have happened. Because the word “evangelical” has taken on such negative weight in the eyes of the public outside the Christian faith, adults 40 and under either look askance at or jettison altogether the faith evangelicals represent. (See Raised Right by Alisa Harris, both her book and blog featured here at patheos.com) In doing these things, young adult believers miss tapping into a magnificent extended root system. The authors try to reacquaint the readers with who evangelicals really were (and are). They include not only Billy Graham but John Wesley, William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Schaeffer, all of the leaders of spiritual awakening and revival of the 18th and 19th centuries and all the social reform leaders of those centuries driven by those spiritual awakenings. In separate conversations, Fergus Bordewich, a historical writer outside the evangelical camp, told me it that he was surprised to learn that evangelicals powered the Underground Railroad. Adam Hochschild, a classic sixties vintage Cal-Berkeley liberal, said to me that he’s convinced that the British evangelicals who fought slavery in the British Empire mounted the greatest protest movement in world history, providing the foundation for everything that worked in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and that they were his heroes. We used to be good people – and can be again.
How to change? Remember what Christians should be about. Slaughter tells the great story about inviting a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian and a Tea Partier to sit together at the front of the church during a service. I would have thrown in a labor union guy and an environmentalist “greenie” to spice up the mix. He then pointed out that the only thing all these had in common was simply – Jesus Christ. Christianity erases barriers that divide people (See Galatians 3:28) Outsiders will know us as the people who know and love Jesus in that we love one another, eclipsing human differences (John 13:34, 35). Tony Campolo addressed the annual meeting of a group caught up in a bitter theological struggle. Looking them in the eye he said, “I don’t know what you‘re fighting about here but you’re becoming a nasty bunch of people that no one wants to be part of.”
The book focuses on disagreements on politics and social issues. They could have included theology too. Christians routinely rule each other out of the Kingdom over predestination/free will, Pentecostals/cessationists, creationists/intelligent design, KJV only/which Bible? Our evangelical forebears (the real ones) can teach us much. George Whitefield and John Wesley, two great evangelists during the First Great Awakening, were friends. But they strongly disagreed over the Calvinistic doctrines of grace on one hand (Whitefield) and Arminian free will (Wesley) on the other. They especially went at it in print in pamphlets and tracts. The two men never attacked each other; their followers didn’t follow suit. Sitting in a pub one day, some of Whitefield’s companions said to him, “Do you really think we will see John Wesley in heaven?”
“No, I do not think so,” Whitefield shrewdly replied, “John Wesley will be so near the throne of God while you and I will be so far away that I doubt we shall catch scarcely a glimpse of him.” Mike, Chuck and Robert bend over backwards, not to accommodate everyone, but to respect all sides that crack heads over politics, social issues and theology. They might not earn a gig with Cirque de Soleil, but they may earn a hearing for Jesus Christ from both those hungry for Him and those who might leave us because they haven’t seen enough of Him in our midst.
David Swartz pastors Bethel Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He thinks that jazz is sacred music, that books are better company than most people, and that university towns rock. He blogs at geezeronthequad.com.