Excerpted with permission from "What's God Got to Do With the American Experiment?," edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and John J. DiIulio Jr. Excerpts from the book will be featured on Beliefnet throughout the convention season. In our book "Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?," we affirm the right and responsibility of every person, religious or not, to participate in the political process. But we warn that when the clergy and other institutions of the church do so, they run the risk of being compromised and their central message obscured as they are often seduced by the siren song of temporal political power. It is never the state that is threatened, as liberal clergy and secularists have claimed. It is always the church that suffers, because the kingdom of no compromise that the church is supposed to represent becomes involved in a political kingdom that is all about compromise and almost always is seduced by the world and follows its appeals and agendas, rather than leading the world to the only agenda that can change a life: Jesus Christ.

As just one example of how politics can corrupt the church, or at least those who presume to speak for God, we cite a New York Times report in August 1999 in which two former members of the Christian Coalition described that organization's tactics. According to the two, the Christian Coalition lied about the number of its members, counting dead people, double counting others, and adding to its membership list anyone who so much as called with a question. The two also reported that when the organization knew that news crews were to visit, it hired temporary workers to fool the media into believing it was larger and had a greater impact than it actually did.

Are these the tactics most people would associate with someone, or some organization, that uses the name "Christian" as part of its title? If conservative Christians really want to affect their world, they already possess the power to do so. It is the power that Paul referred to in Colossians 1:27: "Christ in you." This is not a call for retreat or disengagement, as some have falsely claimed about our book. It is about an engagement that has more power with greater potential for results than the false promise of politics. Consider the Republican congressional class of 1994, the one that rode to majority power on a wave of "family values." Former speaker Newt Gingrich is divorcing his wife. Affairs and divorce among several other conservative Republican members of the Senate and the House have also been reported. If people who ran on "family values" cannot even impose them on themselves, what makes us think they will be more successful imposing them on the country through the legislative process?

Conservative Christians seem to think that having their people legislate and adjudicate will force those who disagree to accept their views. But how many of them have accepted Bill Clinton's views since he's been in office? In politics, if our side wins the next election, the other side does not acquiesce to the truth of our side's ideas. It simply fights harder to defeat our side in the election after that. Truth is never advanced.

The Bible that conservative Christians love to wave--rhetorically and physically--speaks of a world that is passing away and commands us, "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:15-17).

Does this mean conservative Christians should retreat into separatism and catacomb-like existence? No. Believers should engage the world. They should just not marry it. Nowhere in the Scripture are believers commanded to "reclaim culture," or "reclaim America." Quite the opposite. C.S. Lewis has noted that Jesus viewed such things, not as unimportant, but as trivial to his ultimate mission, which was not the reform of nations but the transformation of the individual. The Jewish prophet Isaiah said God views all nations, presumably including the United States, as "a drop in the bucket."

Christians can and should vote. They can and should also do what Jesus commanded them to do: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and care for widows and orphans. In doing such things they make their faith attractive to unbelievers. But they win no converts when they seek to use the temporal power of government, alone, to impose their views from the top down. In fact they are doomed to frustration because there are not enough of them who all believe the same things. In 1996, exit polls indicated that one-third of the self-described "Evangelical vote" (which is a minority, not a majority) went to Bill Clinton.

The problem for religiously conservative institutions is that obedience to the commands of Jesus won't raise money, at least not the kinds of money needed to convey the illusion of power and success. Fundraisers have told us they can't raise money on positive themes, so passions must be inflamed and fears enhanced.

That's why abortion, homosexuality, and gun control remain the bread and butter fundraising issues of the so-called religious right. Money is raised, but the stated goals are never achieved, nor can they be, because they proceed from the wrong premise and use tactics (sometimes dishonest) in the name of God that He refuses to honor.

Both the religious left and religious right go wrong when their theologies and practices are selective. They take from God those things that seem to bless their political agendas and reject or ignore those things that won't raise money or that make them feel uncomfortable. God doesn't offer us any choice, except to reject Him. He requires that if we are to know Him and serve Him with His approval, we must accept the entire package, not just the ribbon or the wrapping. That both left and right have failed to do this is the primary reason why neither has been effective in serving the church or having a positive and long-lasting impact on the state.

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