Magazine article Insight on the News

Laity Pushes Clergy toward Right, Evangelical Political Revival Grows

Magazine article Insight on the News

Laity Pushes Clergy toward Right, Evangelical Political Revival Grows

Article excerpt

The mantle of evangelical leadership in public affairs has passed from the ordained clergy to the laity as conservative Christians have developed a zeal for political activity and advocacy of family values. The change is dramatic, both theologically and secularly. It affects Catholics as well as Protestants.

In the late 1970s, when conservative, evangelical Christians first decided in large numbers to return to the fold of active politics after five decades of wandering the wilderness of electoral abstention, their leading spokesman was a pastor, the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Fifteen years later, the mantle of evangelical leadership in public affairs had passed to James Dobson, a psychologist--and a layman.

* In 1988, the Rev. Pat Robertson ran for president. Today, he maintains an arm's length from his own political movement, the Christian Coalition, preferring to let the leadership and voice of that organization come from his deputy, Ralph Reed--another layman.

* For many decades, Catholics and non-Catholics alike expected the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy to determine and then announce the church's political stands and priorities. Today, there is a rising tide of Catholic laity forming organizations to address public issues, with the blessing--but not the guiding hand--of the bishops.

These trends are part of a widespread rethinking of the "job descriptions" of the laity and clergy in numerous Christian denominations.

Many in the media have not gotten the message. They retain an outdated model that sees the ordained minister as the Christian par excellence. Notice, for instance, how often Dobson is referred to in the media as "Reverend," as though he were a minister. After all, nobody but an ordained member of an organized clerical caste possibly could be concerned about bringing a Christian witness to bear on public issues, right?

Wrong. Throughout Christianity, there is a trend toward lay leadership and lay responsibility for Christian conduct in public life. Increasingly, citizen Christians are perceiving a division of labor within the universal church that has important implications for the role of laity.

Evangelical churches and the Catholic Church in the United States have collective histories that help explain their approaches to public involvement. According to some historians, the fervent, Bible-based evangelicalism of today once was the normative Protestantism of most of the country But two developments early in the 20th century drove evangelicals out of the cultural mainstream. One was the rise of Social Gospel theology. This liberal school of thought, which elevated social reform over personal salvation, captivated leading Protestant clergymen and led to the marginalization of those who clung to what they saw as a more authentic Reformation tradition. The other was the Scopes "monkey" trial which, though won by the prosecution, nonetheless held conservative Protestantism up to ridicule among the elites.

From the 1920s to the 1970s, evangelicals tended toward the view that involvement in secular politics was a form of compromise with evil. Only in the late seventies--spurred in part by the written works of Francis Schaeffer and Tim LaHaye--did they veer back toward active citizenship, and when they did it was with a largely lay leadership.

"Today," says Michael Cromartie, who chronicles Protestant thought for the Ethics and Public Philosophy Institute, "we almost have the opposite problem--people thinking politics is a higher calling. The authentic Protestant view, rooted in the Puritan concept of calling, is that all honest work is equal in God's eyes, everyone's calling is significant and all work can and should be done for God." Today's Catholic lay movements increasingly share this view of human work and accept its consequences--that laypeople are not second-raters within the church.

For Catholics, public involvement has been tinged by the immigrant experience. …

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