Evangelicals are being seduced back into the GOP not by a politician, but by a pastor. Spiritually speaking, they should resist.
At the moment President Bush ascended to reelection in 2004, Christian conservatives had attained political power almost unequaled in modern American history – perhaps only the post-WW2 labor movement was its equal. From 1980 through Bush’s second term, religious conservatives had ushered in 20 years of republican presidents, a decade of Republican control of Congress, seven of the nine Supreme Court justices, and the sense that they controlled the GOP.
Then something strange happen. They went on a retreat of sorts. As their pastor-in-chief, George W. Bush, descended into scandal, presided over the Iraq debacle, and failed to live up to his pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the White House,” evangelicals went away. They stopped giving to Republican candidates – the latest report shows that only 30% of those who gave in 2004 gave to Romney, McCain, Giuliani, Huckabee or any of the other GOP candidates.
Preachers galore started telling their congregations to just say no to partisan politics. One need look no further than New Life Church in Colorado Springs where the pastor who succeeded the uber-political (and uber-fallen) Ted Haggard has declared his pulpit “politics free.” But one could also look to Minnesota where evangelical mega-church pastor Greg Boyd is preaching that the radical life of a Christian doesn’t include politics. Or even to California, where evangelicalism’s biggest star, Rick Warren, is decidedly absent from domestic politics preferring to spend his time working on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
I like to think that there is another reason that evangelicals have gone missing from politics. They sense how damaging it has been to the perception of their Christian faith.
Christian pollster David Kinnaman writes, “The number of young people in our culture who now embrace unflattering perspectives about Christians and politics is astounding. Three-quarters of young [non-Christians] and half of young churchgoers describe present-day Christianity as “too involved in politics.”
Adults aren’t too much different. More than half of the adult population in America describes the political involvement of Christians as a concern. Twenty percent of all evangelicals believe that adopting a conservative Christian political agenda has helped destroy the image of Jesus Christ.
For a community of believers, like evangelicals, for whom sharing the life-giving message of Jesus is an essential part of life, this sort of data is a shock to the system. It is evidence that perhaps they have been misplacing their priorities – focusing far more on the city of man than on the City of God.
Now, however, they are being tempted back into politics by the only person who could have reinvigorated them – a pastor named Mike Huckabee.
His Iowa “Believe” television ad testifies that he is a “Christian leader.” During campaign events he has taken to handing out “commitment cards” of the sort given to people in churches who have made a decision to follow Jesus. Except the commitment Huckabee is looking for is one of a different sort – a buck and a vote.
His repeat appearances in pulpits across Iowa (for votes) and Texas (for money) might have been the kind of thing he, as a Baptist pastor, would have railed against at one time in his life because they so blur the line between faith and politics…and potentially the law.
At one such event last month, televangelist James Robison introduced Huckabee, who was there to give a sermon on marriage entitled, “State of the Union: What God has joined together,” by exhorting the church to go to his website, and not so subtly asking them to consider giving him money, “It may just be that you will impressed not only to pray for him but to help him. …It is one thing to pray and another thing to become an answer to prayer, I have found great peace in prayer but I have found greater joy in becoming answers to prayers. You can be that.”
It is hard to watch that kind of introduction and not think of Jesus’ stern warning not to give Caesar more than his due. It is even harder not to think of Jesus storming the temple to rid it of the corruption that was found there.
This is precisely the kind of melding of conservative politics and Jesus’ Gospel that has moved many evangelicals to believe that too much focus on politics has hurt Christianity.
George W. Bush perfected the art of running for president while campaigning as pastor-in-chief. His was, however, a behind-the-scenes campaign. Although he very publicly professed that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, his public professions of faith were infrequent. It was the unseen stuff that mattered. His team brought in pastors aplenty to hear Bush’s personal conversion testimony – Jesus brought the man with a drinking problem to his knees and then to great heights. These pastors then went out and told their flocks about Bush’s faith. It was viral spiritual marketing. It worked. Evangelicals didn’t just love Bush the politician, they came to see him as a spiritual brother and a spiritual leader.
A recent poll found that more people thought of George W. Bush as a Christian leader than any American except Billy Graham. That isn’t a good thing because the words associated with Bush were “dishonest,” “hypocritical” and a “bad example of Christianity.”
Now evangelicals are being tempted back into the political by a pastor. They should resist. Evangelicals who have been burned by a president posing as pastor-in-chief shouldn’t think having a real pastor as president will make a difference.