The crowd gathered in the basement of the First Baptist Church here was mostly white and middle class, and most were part of an intact, two-parent family. A number of them were stay-at-home moms. They were gathered to talk about citizenship and, in the broadest sense, politics.
But no, this was not a meeting of the Christian Coalition. On the contrary, the people who came together at the invitation of the Nashville-based Baptist Center for Ethics take the view that the Christian message cannot be translated neatly into conservative politics. They are as pro-family, pro-church and pro-prayer as anyone. But they speak for a very old Baptist tradition that is wary of linking religion to political power. These Baptists remember that the state was once the instrument of the persecution of their own faith.
Like members of the Christian Coalition, they believe their choices in all spheres, including politics, should be guided by their faith. But that faith includes a strong identification with the interests of the poor and the excluded. The convictions of many here were shaped by the civil rights movement. The theme of the meeting was set in an opening sermon by Walter Shurden, a professor at Mercer University in Georgia, who said Christians needed to battle against a tendency toward "dwarfed affections and stunted sympathies." Too often, he said, Christians extend their feelings only toward those who are just like themselves.
The meeting was a reminder o that millions of people who are active Christians and churchgoers do not in the least conform to the stereotypes imposed upon them. On the right, there is an effort to claim all the godly for the conservative cause. On the left, there is an automatic reflex to fear any intervention in the political sphere rooted in religious commitment. In both views, strong religious convictions are seen as leading inexorably to a Pat Robertson rally.
Fortunately, this stereotype is coming under sharp challenge, partly because many Christians are speaking up for an alternative view. This view does not seek to turn the Christian Coalition argument on its head and claim that Christianity leads to the left rather than the right. Instead, it says that it's altogether wrong to harness profound religious convictions to any particular ideology.
Christians, in this telling, might plausibly …