Posted by: Kenn Hermann | August 1, 2006

Breaking the Spell of the Religious Right on Evangelicalism

There are some glimmers of hope that the ‘silent majority’ of evangelicals is finally entering its protest against the way that the Religious Right has distorted the Gospel in its pursuit of political power. I have gritted my teeth, held my tongue, and borne the brunt of caricature as ‘one of them’ by family for too long. I am sure that there are many others who have felt my sense of helplessness in the face of the what seems to be a tsunami of support for the Republican party among evangelicals. Now some are speaking out. Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, and well-known speaker and writer, published God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It last year. Wallis takes the offense against those who blithely equate values, morality, faith, and God with the Republican party and warns the Democrats that they abandon the language of values and faith to their deep electoral peril.

Just recently, Randall Balmer, the noted American religious historian at Columbia University, published, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament. How could it happen, he asks, that the evangelical tradition in which he was raised (the same one as mine), wandered away from, and then rejoined, has thoroughly warped and distored its biblical and historical political sensitivities in its yearning to be admitted to the inner sanctum of power in the Republican party?

Finally, the front page of the Sunday New York Times carried a story on “Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock,” about Gregory Boyd, the pastor of Woodland Hills Church in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. Boyd became so exasperated by the pressure to endorse all manner of conservative causes and candidates that he recently preached a series of sermons on “The Cross and the Sword.” He urged his parishoners to “steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a ‘Christian nation’ and stop glorifying American military campaigns.” “When you put your trust in the sword,” Boyd said, “you lose the cross.” He has published a book based on his sermons entitled The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. (Boyd is not new to controversy. His earlier advocacy of ‘open theism’ has stirred up a great deal of consternation, animosity, support, and just a bit of light within the Evangelical Theological Society.) Will other evangelical pastors be emboldened by his example?

We have been down this path before in our history, most often in times of war. In my lifetime we battled the identification of evangelicalism with the Republican party during the Cold War and Vietnam. Growing up in a small church in a small town just west of ‘the cities,’ (for you non-Minnesotans, that’s Minneapolis and St. Paul) I always knew that being a Christian and being a Republican was just the way things were. How did I know that? Well, first I knew that Catholics were not Christians in any terms that my people found acceptable. I had read the pamphlets, heard the sermons, and observed their strange habits — like not eating meat on Friday. No wonder I wasn’t allowed to date a Catholic girl. (Well, I couldn’t date a Lutheran girl, even a good Swedish Lutheran one, either.) Second, I knew, so my father told me, that Catholics were DEMOCRATS. What a scandal!. That settled it for me: good Christians were Republicans. I was a bit confused, though, when I learned from the adult whispering at church that the husband of my fifth grade teacher, who went to our church, was a DEMOCRAT. To confirm our suspicions about whether he was a ‘real’ Christian, he rarely came to church, and when he did, he always sat in the back. (Years later I learned that he suffered, and later died, from Parkinson’s disease.) Our church’s platform was festooned with the American flag on one side and ‘balanced’ by the Christian flag on the other.

I vividly remember watching my first presidential conventions in 1952 on our new TV. I was just 7, but I remember chanting “I like Ike” and reveling in the drama of the conventions. I watched both the Republican and Democrat conventions, but don’t remember much about the Democrats and Stevenson. (Years later, while watching clips of the dry, but thoughtful, Stevenson, I know why I did not remember it.) I read my first newspaper coverage of the conventions in My Weekly Reader. I also remember asking my father who he was voting for. He told me distinctly, “Eisenhower, of course.” Eishenhower won in our second grade voting, though the Catholic kids made the vote closer than I had imagined possible.

My family’s attachment to the Republican party was strengthened by our strong anti-communism. My paternal grandmother, a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society, fed me a constant stream of conspiracy-laden truths about ‘commies’ in the government, unions, and among the “Negroes,” as African-Americans were called then. She even had a picture purporting to show Martin Luther King at a communist training camp in Cuba. President Eisenhower may have finally silenced Senator Joseph McCarthy, but fear and suspicion of communism was a constant threat throughout my growing up. The television show, “I Led Three Lives,” featuring Herb Philbrick, the counter-espionage agent, kept those fears alive. The belief in our household was that McCarthy may have exaggerated, but “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Communists were silently burrowing deep into the heart of America to destroy it. Why else would we have drills at school where we dived under our desks to protect us from nuclear bombs that the Russians fired at us? America must wake up to this insidious threat. Not only were they silently undermining America, they were brazenly extending their empire around the world; ‘red’ oozed over the globe in those film strips we watched. The Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, confirmed our worst fears about the threat of communism. Such was my political education growing up. Good Christians were anti-Catholics, anti-communists, champions of a robust military, enemies of Big Government– and Republicans. I am sure millions of evangelicals had similar experiences growing up in small towns all across the country.

My escape from the stultifying identification of Christian and Republican came during the Vietnam war. I started out writing an occasional political column for my college newspaper, often cribbing the columns that the famous Walter Lippmann wrote for Newsweek. As Lippmann grew more deeply disillusioned with the war, so did I. As I recall not too many students or professors at Trinity College discussed the war (nor civil rights, nor anything else political) in the mid-60s. In my first year of graduate school in 1967 I discovered the New Left critique of the war and Jim Wallis and the newly-emerging Post-American community. The Post-American (the forerunner of Sojourners) was liberating for me: it was publishing critiques of American war policy written by Christians, even evangelical Christians. If you have not seen the Post-American graphic of Jesus, with the crown of thorns, sitting slumped over under the weight of the American flag drapped over his shoulders, you must. It was on the cover of the very first issue.

My political education entered a critical phase when I enlisted in the Air Force in 1969 rather than be drafted into the Army. During those years I discovered the anabaptist and the Reformed traditions, regularly reading the pacifists on the one hand and the just war advocates on the other. (I still do.) Fortunately, my desk job in central Illinois did not qualify me for duty in Vietnam. That freed me to read deeply in political, theological, and philosophical issues at night while sending young men to their tours of duty as aircraft mechanics and pilots in Vietnam during the day. Talk about psychological dissonance.

Reading Wallis and Balmer reminded me of three evangelical historians, Richard Pierard, Robert Clouse, and Robert Linder, who were pivotal to my staying within the evangelical orbit, despite my growing disillusionment with U.S. policy in Vietnam, evangelicalism’s silence on the issues that mattered to me, and the Republican party. They wrote four key books (and many articles) that merit as much attention today for their biblical wisdom as they did 35+ years ago. It is remarkable how many parallels there are between the dangers they exposed and those we confront today. Change ‘anti-communism’ to ‘anti-terrorism’ and the equation is complete. They are: Clouse, Pierard, Linder, eds., Protest and Politics: Christianity and Contemporary Affairs (Attic Press, 1968), Pierard, The Unequal Yoke: Evangelical Christianity and Political Conservatism (Lippincott, 1970), Clouse, Linder, and Pierard, eds., The Cross and the Flag (Creation House, 1972), and Linder and Pierard, Twilight of the Saints: Bliblical Christianity & Civil Religion in America (IVP, 1978). These books still sit on my shelves. They were accompanied by a great cloud of witnesses, including David Moberg, Vernon Grounds, Sherwood Wirt, Foy Valentine, John Redekop, and many others. Many thanks from my generation to theirs for their faithful witness to the gospel’s power to transform society and politics and escape the thrall of the Religious Right.

I also must mention senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon (active Baptist) and congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois (a member of the Evangelical Free Church, my denomination), two Republicans of great Christian conviction, moral courage, and wisdom. Hatfield was an early critic of the Vietnam War and Anderson ran unsuccessfully for president as an independent in 1980. They were beacons of hope for many of us during those trying days. Oh, that their voices were heard today in the councils of the Republican party and the nation.

The experiences of finding my voice as a Christian in the political arena during the turbulent 60s and 70s made an indelible mark on me. Since then I have found a most authentic home — sometimes a bit uneasily, to be sure — within the neo-calvinist or reformational stream of the Reformed tradition. In many ways I am so grateful that those earlier experiences have equipped me to discern the heresies — yes, that’s right, heresies — in groups like the Pastor Patriots in central Ohio and maintain my integrity as a Christian in politics.

If you are searching for a way to break free from the identification of Christianity with the Republican party, check out these resources:

  • Center for Public Justice
  • Jim Skillen (CPJ president), With or Against the World? America’s Role Among the Nations(Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) and numerous earlier books
  • David Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP, 2003)
  • Alan Storkey, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers (Baker, 2005)

I need to write a blog, inspired by Jim Wallis’s book, on “Why the Democrats Will Never Win Another Election.”

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Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing. Interesting thoughts… I’m glad to see that others care about these issues and are thinking them through. A couple years ago I would have sworn you have to be a Republican to be a Christian. Now I think that is hogwash. I’ll have to read some of these books on these issues, as I think it would help bring clarity.

  2. Thanks, Josh. By all means read these books — and many others that will help you stand fast. If you run out of books to read, just ask. BTW, have you had a chance to read the books I suggested to you some months back on Christian worldview?

  3. Honestly, I haven’t–yet. They are on my reading list, but I haven’t gotten to them. So many books, so little time!

  4. Kenn, this is Kelvin from Toledo. Just a brief line to say I appreciate your well-articulted , timely and wise thoughts on the Religious Right. It is a scandal that the Gospel is employed to defend many of the very beliefs Jesus Himself opposed. Unfortunately many leftists know no other vision of how Christians can impact the culture without pandering to fear and bigotry. I am sure many rightists truly see themselves defending Truth against sloppy secularism. But to baptize Republican dogma as orthodoxy and godly traditional values is so tragicomic I don’t know whether to cry tears of rage or laugh at these misguided “defenders of the faith.”


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