Monday, October 10, 2016

Crisis in the Evangelical Church?

For over a month I’ve been turning over in my mind Matthew 4, where Jesus is tempted by the devil. Jesus was promised great power, and wealth, that he could have used to better the lives of the people. He refused. He knew the subterfuge and the danger of allowing such earthly bobbles to distract from the spiritual ministry which Jesus was about to launch.    

I’ve thought of that passage in light of the American presidential election which has created a crisis in the American Evangelical Christian community. It is a crisis that has its roots stemming back to the late 70s and early 80s when the Evangelical Church intentionally and aggressively aligned itself with the Republican party. Today, gaining the support of evangelical pastors and key church leaders is a critical early step for a Republican to be successful in a run for state wide or a national office.    

Since the late 1970s the evangelical community, which admittedly is my spiritual roots, has been steadfastly entwined with the Republican party. For decades they have vigorously spoken about the importance of the nation’s leaders such as the President, Vice-President, Speaker and Senate Leader, and Governors, being of solid upright character. Furthermore, the expectations that an evangelical vote Republican, that in many congregations if a person votes for a Democrat, the veracity and sincerity of their faith is questioned by their fellow worshippers. Such an expectation is so strong that there are Christian colleges that allow a student led Republican club on campus but will not allow Democrat club to be formed or operate.

Christians should be involved in politics and stand as candidates for all parties. The church and its leadership should speak to specific issues, particularly those directly related to morality, but without supporting particular candidates and parties. Because of the respect that they are given, clergy must be careful about stating their voting preference. A pastor who says to the press or congregation, “I’m just speaking as a private citizen, not on behalf of my ministry,” is being disingenuous as they know fully that most of those who are under their leadership will not only follow their lead, but tend to view it as the view of divinity.

When the church aligns itself with a party, it is compromising the gospel. When its clergy openly involved with a specific party on behalf of, or in association in some manner with their ministry, they enmesh the church with a process that ultimately tarnishes the church and its spiritual ministry. As has been evidenced again and again, when the church is in bed with a political party, the unfortunate result is the muting of the church's moral voice. The tendency for the church is to remain silent or speak in muted terms when the officeholder of one's party says or does something unseemly. Its clergy to remain silent on ills and bad legislation rather than speaking out against the party, thereby surrendering the obligation to speak truth forthrightly to officeholders. When the church and its leaders have remained silent so as not to damage the party, the church has accepted earthly power over its moral and spiritual ministry.

The church must speak to issues and help the whole community to come together, working with people to build consensus for the greater whole, not contribute to the broadening of division. To often politicking involves unseemly demonizing, obfuscation, and outright telling of falsehoods. What does it say about the body of Christ when its representatives remain silent because they do not want to damage their party and candidate.

The church is about building people up, thinking the best of people rather than demonizing, helping all to find grace, receive and give grace. In contrast, politics involves forging alliances and negotiations, and seeking ways to position yourself to look better while making those in the other party look as bad as possible. It is about the securing and holding of earthly power, pushing one’s agenda forward by whatever means possible.

Recent history demonstrates how a political position can quickly shift when the other side advocates a similar. In recent years we have witnessed major politicians and their parties attacking vigorously the very policies and legislation that they sought to advance before their opponents started embracing it and even improving it. Too often political positions are postures of convenience masked in language of moral conviction, but such conveniences can be fleeting.

When the church and its leaders cease speaking only to issues, and instead align themselves exclusively with a party, then the community of faith dismisses good policies and legislation out of hand because it is being advanced by the other side, and thereby the church hinders good governance. Further, the politically aligned faith community finds itself forced to switch positions when the party changes, and to demonize those upright and honorable proposals, which though they have shortcomings and flaws, can be honed and made stronger for the benefit of the community, state or nation, but is not because the church demonizes the idea instead of helping to hone the proposal. In so doing the church harms the cause of Christ and its moral integrity as it tows the party line.     

Today, as a collective whole, the Evangelical Church are facing a crisis because it crawled into bed with a political party. The presidential nominee of that party has demonstrated that he is long removed from the character and morality standard the evangelical community has long claimed as being so critical for the office of the presidency. He is a man who claims to be of faith, yet cannot pronounce II Corinthians correctly when even the most nominal church attendee knows to say “second Corinthians” not “two Corinthians”, and has stated on several occasions that he has not needed to ask God for forgiveness for anything in his life because he has not made mistakes.   

Donald Trump is steadfastly supported by evangelicals. This support is most clearly evidenced by the position of the largest evangelical college, Liberty University, whose leadership, staff and students gave their early endorsement, an endorsement that continues to stand even in light of recent reports and actions that do not speak well of his character. 

Has the Evangelical Church and their leadership sold their souls, and thereby diminishing credibility, to a man who has promised them that he will pick Supreme Court judges who will to the liking of Evangelicals?  Have they bought into a untrustworthy man’s promise to make their lives better, to give them full religious liberty while suppressing the same liberties of another religious group? Is that the way to secure freedom for the Christian faith? Has the Evangelical Church accepted the deal that Jesus rejected when the Devil offered him power to rule over the kingdoms of the earth? 

What message is the religious community's silence on atrocious ungodly behavior and bragging of sexual assault, invasion of privacy saying to the community? If there are more reports will evangelicals remain with him? What does it say about the state of the evangelical community when it advocates for a man who daily tells numerous falsehoods, has not guiding principle other than saying and doing what is needed in the moment to gain an advantage, who has used ethically questionable practices to make a buck, and who demeans and bullies people? And as they do, how will they credibly reconcile their endorsement with their proclaimed values of family values?

What is the religious community saying to its youth and the youth beyond its worship communities when its leaders and adult members explain away or accept ungodly behavior? If the world speaks against Trump's character, conduct and statements, and evangelicals remain strong for him when the world at large repudiates him, does that place the church in the place the Pharisees and Sadducees, saying one thing and doing opposite?  

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters the guidance the novice demon Screwtape is given by his mentor demon, that he could dull the Christian or a church by enticing them blindly think that they are achieving a godly thing, give them that thing but with a load of evil along the way and attached to it. Screwtape is told, when that happens, the Christian's testimony, or the church's, is compromised and becomes more powerless. Are we not seeing such a process at play with the Supreme Court. 

The politician in question, Trump, for a politician is what he is and has been for years, has courted Christians while claiming to be a Christian. He has been embraced and enabled by large segments of the Evangelical Community. As this politician has claimed to be a member of the faith community and has actively sought faith community support using such a claim, then it is right to evaluate him on such a basis, and as an insider. Though others may wish to overlook the words of Paul to the Corinthian church leadership in I Corinthians 5, I will not.

I am disappointed that this narcotic man, who has appealed to the worse nature of the nation, is being viewed by large segments of the evangelical church as God's man for this hour, as a man worthy of their strong support.  The evangelical community explaining away or dismissing this man's statements that fuels division and openly empowers those in the white supremacy movement causes me to recall the condemning words of St. Paul to the church leadership in Corinth for not standing against a man who was having an ongoing affair with his step-mother, by noting that they remained silent to their shame and to the harm of the gospel even when the non-Christian community knows the affair is wrong. While I no longer view myself as a part of the evangelical community, it is my heritage and roots, one of which I'm becoming increasingly ashamed for belonging. 

I absolutely reject the fear of Supreme Court nominations as being righteous. I reject the promise of religious freedom for Christians from a man who will restrict the freedoms of others. Both are forms of idolatry and entrapments. If the Evangelical Church needs the Court, and a flawed earthly power, to save souls and empower faithful witnessing to the Gospel in both word and deed, then the Church has not only lost its credibility to speak on a host of issues, including morality, but is harming the gospel message. When the freedom of worship is denied or restricted to one group, we are all loose for we are only a step away from adding another group as we stand in the doorway to the room into tyranny of the majority. When the church supports a most ungodly man as if he was their earthly hero, then the gospel's power has greatly been compromised for the sake of earthly power, and history will judge harshly the American Evangelical church of this age.

And when Trump is in the White House, and his the debased nature of his character becomes glaring, and when he continue to attack the foundations of the nation, its electoral process, separation of powers, and the press, will the church speak out against him or remain silent? When his tempestuous character comes out, bullies people, and his countless glaring falsehoods become a growing mountain of national shame, will the church's leadership speak out, or remain silent because he is our man? I hope it is not the latter. If it is, it is to the church's shame!

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