Political Christians, Christian Politics: The Year's Top Stories

The Christian Century, December 21, 1994 | Go to article overview

Political Christians, Christian Politics: The Year's Top Stories


WHILE MAINLINE churches were sharpening the prophetic statement as a tool of social ministry, the Religious Right in the past decade or so devoted itself to mastering grass-roots political organizing. Judging by secular criteria alone, affecting the political process may be easier said than done, but easy gets you a seat in the spectator's gallery while done gets you into the game.

"We've learned how to move under radar in the cover of the night with shrubbery strapped to our helmets," said Ralph Reed, head of the Pat Robertson--related Christian Coalition. Whether they need the shrubbery or not, after this year's elections politically and theologically conservative religionists stand poised to assist the Republican-controlled Congress in remaking public policy.

While experts say it's still too early to determine precisely what role the Religious Right played in the November elections, initial data show the movement contributed significantly to what has been called the Republican Revolution, especially in the once solidly Democratic South. A spokesman for Newt Gingrich told the New York Times: "The organized Christian vote is roughly to the Republican Party today what organized labor was to the Democrats. It brings similar resources: people, money and ideological conviction."

The Religious Right's growing power and its Manichaean judgments precipitated the formation of the Interfaith Alliance in 1994, a coalition of generally liberal religious bodies, funded in part by the Democratic Party and devoted to both challenging conservative religious activists and articulating "the unifying principles of all faiths--compassion, tolerance and justice."

Lost amid the news conferences, the Christian Coalition's congressional "report cards," and calls to arms against antidemocratic theocrats was the larger issue of Christian witness: When does Christian partisan political activity impede, or even falsify, Christian social witness to the divine reality that transcends every political order? Perhaps Karl Barth's view of Christian activism in the political realm is worth considering at this juncture in our nation's history. As Barth saw it, Christians should be active in the political sphere, but "in every party they will be against narrow party policies and stand up for the interests of the whole community." Moreover, for Barth, those who act to further the church are called Christians; those who act to advance the political good, even if they are Christians, are called citizens.

2. It was impossible to move in mainline church circles without discussing the ecumenical women's conference titled "Re-Imagining." Held in November 1993, the meeting attracted little notice until the Presbyterian Layman, a publication of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, and Good News, the journal of an evangelical caucus in the United Methodist Church, charged that the conference had been rife with heresy--that among other things participants celebrated homosexuality, worshiped the goddess "Sophia" and rejected Christ's atonement. Re-Imagining participants responded that this was a gross misrepresentation of the theological exploration that took place.

The ideological and theological divisions revealed by the controversy were hardly new. What did appear new was the degree of pressure conservative critics were able to mobilize on denominational officials, who were urged to repudiate the conference and rebuke participants. The pressure was especially strong in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which had supported the conference with about $66,000 and sent over 400 participants, including some national staff members. PCUSA headquarters received more than 3,000 letters on the topic, most of them negative, and at one point the church estimated that it stood to lose $2.5 million in contributions as a result of congregational protests over Re-Imagining. Eventually Mary Ann Lundy, a church official who was a key planner and supporter of the conference, was forced to resign over the issue. …

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