God's Politics

Diana Butler BassLast week, Sojourners launched the “Red Letter Christians” group at a press conference in Washington. “Red Letter Christians” is a short-hand way of talking about Christians who take the whole of Jesus’ teachings seriously in our spiritual and public lives—even the difficult bits of the Beatitudes like “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are the peacemakers.”

It is humbling to be asked to be part of this group of Christian writers; I felt especially awed at Dave Batstone’s discussion of contemporary slavery as a moral issue and Randall Balmer’s call to stand up against torture. For more than a dozen years, I have been voicing my concerns that the Religious Right’s conception of “values” issues is limited and politicized, but most of my words have been in print—not spoken with passion (as my colleagues so ably did) before reporters. With lights and cameras on, and journalists taking notes, I felt surprisingly shy (not at all as I feel in the pulpit or in the classroom) and, introducing myself quickly, shared my concerns about issues of church and state, and then willingly surrendered the podium to the next Red Letter Christian!

The combination of my colleagues’ clarity and my own shyness would have kept me glued to my seat for the rest of the event, save the question of one reporter. Several tried to pin us down politically (suspicious, I think, that we are some sort of front organization for the Democratic National Committee). Finally, one asked outright if all the Red Letter Christians were registered Democrats—and if any of us were Republicans.

The room seemed a little strained at that point. One person talked about being an independent voter. I kept thinking that the journalists were missing the point by trying to define us by Washington categories instead of theological ones. Unexpectedly, I found myself at the microphone again—“coming out” politically to a room full of the mainstream media.

I shared that I am currently a registered Democrat and that I was born to a Democratic family. However (and in correct chronological order), I have been a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, a Republican, a Democrat, a Republican very briefly, and once again a Democrat (maybe the journalist should ask me the same question five years from now!). But then, the ultimate confession: One of my proudest possessions is a personal letter from Senator Barry Goldwater (yes, “Mr. Conservative”) congratulating me on being Arizona Teen-Age Republican of the Year in 1976!

The room laughed. And the subject changed back to more important things (like poverty, the environment, and peacemaking) than our voter registration. But if I wasn’t quite so intimidated by the cameras, I now realize that my confession should have extended just one more sentence: “Yes, I’ve worn all these political labels—depending on issues at stake and candidates in races—but throughout my checkered political history, one label has never changed: Christian; I am a Christian, and all those other labels are secondary to my baptismal journey to live the teachings of Jesus.”

And that’s the point of Red Letter Christians: We are Christians. All those other labels—Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative—are secondary to being Christian, our passionate quests to enact grace and live a Christian way of life. As I reflect on my missing sentence, I realize that it sounds a wee bit like a sentence from scripture. Not one printed in RED letters, but the plain black words of St. Paul: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” If the blessed apostle were around for press conferences today, I’m pretty sure he’d add, “no longer Republican or Democrat,” too.

Diana Butler Bass is an independent scholar and author. Her latest book is Christianity for the Rest of Us (Harper, September 2006).

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