By John W. Whitehead
The Christian Right, apparently having learned nothing from George W. Bush’s disastrous reign, seems determined to appoint yet another political savior, this time in the form of Rick Perry, the Republican governor from Texas. Perry recently made headlines after he hosted a prayer rally endorsed and attended by such notable members of the Christian Right as the American Family Association (which financed the event); James Dobson of Focus on the Family; David Barton of Wallbuilders; megachurch pastor John Hagee; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. The rally was viewed by many as Perry’s attempt to test the presidential waters with conservative evangelicals, who represent a sizeable voting bloc.
At Perry’s urging, more than 33,000 individuals gathered on Saturday, August 6, in Houston’s Reliant stadium to fast and pray for the nation. The event, described as “part prayer service, part Christian rock concert, and part marathon pep rally for Jesus Christ,” was also broadcast live in 1,000 churches across the country. Despite the fact that Perry insisted the event was not political but rather aimed at rallying the nation to a Christian unity during difficult times, the event, as the Associated Press points out, “gave him an important platform as he weighs whether to run for president.”
This is particularly important when you consider that evangelical conservatives make up a critical part of the voting bloc for Republican contenders. More than 28.8 million Christian conservatives—32 percent of all voters (the highest recorded percentage of any election)—turned out for the 2010 elections, with 77% voting for Republicans. Truly, the electoral might of the Christian Right cannot be underestimated.
Thus, determined to use politics to advance their agendas, the leaders of the Christian Right have had no qualms about turning churches across the country into political headquarters. And, indeed, between the Texas governor who wears his faith on his sleeve and his fawning Christian Right contingency, it’s starting to feel like 1999 all over again.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with people gathering to pray for the nation. Nor is there anything wrong with the fact that Rick Perry, who is expected to throw his hat into the presidential race, is a Christian. The danger arises when Christians wrap their religion in the flag, so to speak. For the Christian, country and faith are never synonymous, and they are not two equal loyalties. As Christians in past regimes have found, identifying with the political establishment, as much of modern evangelicalism is doing, can present a grave danger—not only can the church become a useful tool for politicians, but the establishment can and often has become the church’s enemy.
Not only is identifying with the established powers perilous, but it also negates what it really means to be a Christian. Christians are not to identify with power but to speak truth to power—even at great costs. Martyrs, past and present, testify to this. Yet like moths flickering about a hot flame, the leaders of the Christian Right are eager to get close to political power. Unfortunately, as we saw during George W. Bush’s disastrous tenure, there is always a price to be paid for power and prestige. In the process of seeking policy outcomes and funding for faith-based initiatives, the Christian leadership was seduced by political power to such an extent that the true message of Jesus was being held hostage to a political agenda. Whereas Jesus was a homeless, itinerant preacher who taught charity, compassion, and love for one’s neighbor, today’s Christianity is more often equated with partisan politics, anti-homosexual rhetoric, materialism, affluent megachurches, and moralistic finger-pointing.
One person who understands all too well the danger of fusing religion and politics is David Kuo, who served as Special Assistant to President Bush from 2001-2003. In his book Tempting Faith, Kuo describes the way in which the Bush Administration manipulated Christians. According to Kuo, it wasn’t difficult to convince Christians that President Bush was on the right side of virtually any tactic. Thus, we get to the heart of the problem. Genuine religion never attempts to merge with politics. If it attempts to influence politics at all, it’s by speaking truth to power and acting as a moral compass for society. In fact, the Christian Right does Christianity a disservice by greatly misrepresenting its founder, Jesus, who rejected politics as the solution for what ails us. To Jesus, religion was all about helping the poor, showing mercy (even to your enemies) and being a peacemaker—not a warmaker. He did not bless the powerful. Rather, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek.”
Neither did Jesus seek political favors or power. He was apolitical and anti-politics. In fact, Jesus had a tendency to attack and undermine political power. Jesus understood that the legitimate use of power does not include using it to impose one’s will upon others. From the Christian standpoint, the proper use of power is to seek justice for all.
Time and again, the Christian Right leaders have sacrificed their principles to the false idol of politics. In the process, they have sold their souls for a bowl of political porridge. Unlike many Christians today, Christ did not engage in politics, identify with the government, or attempt to push an agenda through government channels. In fact, for Christians to be stridently aligned with conservative politics is to miss the point of their religion. As Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Institute is available at http://www.rutherford.org.