The Political Rift Within Evangelicalism

Shane ClaiborneShane Claiborne is a prominent Christian activist, author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, and one of the founding leaders of the New Monasticism movement. 

[Note: This response comes from an interview for our forthcoming series on the Future of Evangelicalism.]

I don't see a growing rift or increasing animosity. What I see, in the middle of all of the mess in post-Religious-Right America, are people who don't easily fit into the containers we have for them, entering into really civil dialogue with each other. 

I've been in conversations, for instance, with folks like Jim Daly from Focus on the Family, and I have very high, optimistic hopes for where those friendships can lead. I see people being very careful to be self-critical first, to get the log out of their own eye rather than picking on the speck in the eye of someone else. Some of my friends who are more on the Left on a lot of issues are often the first to critique the Democrats. 

The language I hear that's really encouraging is that we need a consistent ethic of life. A lot of people are talking about that, especially young people, who believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That means that we need to interrupt whatever destroys life and the dignity of life, whether it's in the womb or in the tomb. Poverty, war, the death penalty -- all of those become life issues. So those are some of the things that I see. I see a real non-duality of thinking, saying that we want to take the best out of this.

And that's exactly what I see Jesus doing in his own time, taking the best out of the limited political options available to him. He's trying to take the Pharisees further than their own legalism. He's trying to take the Zealots to do something more courageous than just kill their enemies.

That takes a lot of humility and it takes a lot of creativity, to try to bring people to the table together. 

Timothy DalrympleTimothy Dalrymple is Associate Director of Content and Evangelical Portal Manager for

This question leads me to think of the Religious Right, the difference between wilderness prophets and court prophets in the Old Testament, and Gandalf Greyhame from The Lord of the Rings.

When the Religious Right took shape in the 1970s and 1980s, it was largely a defensive action, intended to halt or reverse what was perceived to be an accelerated weakening and deterioration in the spheres of family, community, and country. The sexual revolution was continuing apace and would lead us, it was warned, toward the breakdown of family structures, and all the ills of poverty and crime that would follow. Our personal decisions and political processes were, it was also warned, increasingly guided without regard for eternal values and verities, but were guided instead by the lust for wealth and power and the pragmatism of naked ambition. And Christian principles were being shunted more and more out of the public sphere and into a private realm from whence they could not escape without arousing intense suspicion and offense.

What the previous generation of Christians in politics argued, in other words, was that we stood precariously upon a slippery slope. Our common life would be increasingly dominated by rampant consumerism, sexual promiscuity, the rejection of family, and the politics of person expediency. Our society, our economy, and our government would crumble without the values and faith that had served so long for their foundation. It's hard not to conclude that they were right. Slippery-slope arguments always sound like hyperbole in the beginning. The changes are not dramatic -- until they are.

There is a tendency amongst the present generation of politically active evangelicals to throw the previous generation under the bus, rather than attempt in earnest to understand why they did what they did. There is a tendency for the younger generation to make itself appear superior -- or feel superior -- by distinguishing themselves from those evangelicals, the uncool evangelicals who "just don't get it," who care only for the "culture war" and never for the poor.

This is not only a sinful way to relate to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ; it is also inaccurate. The previous generation never ceased taking care of the poor. They continued to give charitably, continued to support service ministries in their churches, and continued to fund organizations that did magnificent work in the United States and around the world. I cannot support everything a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson said. But that's the point. Not every politically-engaged conservative Christian in the previous generation was a Falwell or a Robertson. Falwell and Robertson were not even Falwell and Robertson as they were portrayed in the popular press.

But that previous generation had some things right. They feared that the dissolution of the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of American society would lead us precisely to where we are. I do not blame them for trying to arrest that dissolution. I only wish they had succeeded.

The problem is that wilderness prophets become court prophets. The Religious Right had a prophetic voice the nation needed to hear. Yet when the Right gained power, they became court prophets, the kind of prophets who always tell the King what he wants to hear. The same thing has happened now to the Left. Those who once raised their voice in the barren wilderness are now apologists in the marble courts.

I would like to see evangelicals hold themselves further back from party entanglements. It is one thing to form alliances to advocate effectively for a better society. It is another to identify oneself and one's faith so much with a party that one can no longer tell where the Bible ends and the party platform begins.

Which brings me to that old Stormcrow. Gandalf could never take the ring because he would have lost his ability to see clearly, to act with regard to the Great Good instead of his own personal good. The Gandalfs on the Right took the ring; the Gandalfs on the Left took the ring. We need to learn from their mistakes.

7/13/2010 4:00:00 AM
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