September 2006 Church & State | Editorial

Since at least 1980, evangelical Christianity has become increasingly identified in the public mind with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others of that ilk.

Polls suggest that many evangelicals are uncomfortable with that religious-political niche, but painfully few clergy have been willing to speak out. Now, at long last, we’re beginning to see challenges to the Religious Right mindset from within the evangelical community. It is an important and long overdue development.

In a front-page New York Times story July 30, evangelical pastor Gregory A. Boyd of Woodland Hills Church, a Baptist congregation in Maplewood, Minn., explained why he decided to expel right-wing politics from his pulpit. Boyd said he grew tired of some members expecting him to reflexively adopt far-right political positions.    

In a series of six sermons delivered last year that he called “The Cross and the Sword,” Boyd, The Times reported, “said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a ‘Christian nation’ and stop glorifying American military campaigns.”

In one sermon, Boyd, who said he personally is a conservative, told his congregation, “When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses. When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

He also said, “America wasn’t founded as a theocracy. America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.”

Around the same time The Times story ran, The Columbus Dispatch profiled several evangelical pastors who have also distanced themselves from partisan politics. These clergy told the newspaper they encourage voting and other civic duties but draw the line at politicized pulpits.

“We never want to communicate to somebody that comes here that they’ve got to go through two conversions in order to come to Christ,” said Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Columbus Vineyard. “We don’t want to have somebody believe that first I must be converted politically from wherever I’m coming from politically, in order to then come through that to Christ.”

Perhaps one of the most hard-hitting indictments of how the Religious Right has warped the evangelical faith is found in evangelical scholar Randall Balmer’s new book, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America – An Evangelical’s Lament.

The reader can sense Balmer’s pain and outrage over what has happened to the religion he holds dear.

“I write as a jilted lover,” he observes. “The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of the First Amendment.”

It’s too early to say these evangelicals will be successful in their effort to wrest their faith away from the Religious Right. Already a backlash is building. Boyd lost a fifth of his church membership when he disavowed pulpit politicking. He is also being brutally attacked by the Religious Right.

In a remarkably snide column, Bran­non Howse of Worldview Weekend denied that Boyd is even an evangelical. He called the respected pastor and the evangelicals who agree with him an “emerging apostate brigade [who] change the meaning of words in hopes of convincing people to be pro-abortion socialists who endorse the homosexual revolution, reject absolute truth and foundational Christian doctrines, while still trying to wear the label of evangelical.”

Howse employs every trick in the Religious Right’s shopworn bag. He substitutes name-calling and hysteria for reasoned debate and arrogantly assumes the right to make judgments about the sincerity of another’s religious commitment. Howse and his allies do that for a reason: It fires up their base and sometimes gets results.

But history exposes why Howse is wrong. The irony is, evangelicals were among the great coalition that secured religious liberty in America by establishing the separation of church and state. Baptists and other evangelicals worked alongside Enlightenment-inspired thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to end government meddling with religion and mandate liberty of conscience for all.

Over time, as their numbers grew, some evangelicals and their leaders were seduced by political power. They aligned themselves with far-right religious and political extremists in a misguided crusade for salvation through an official “Christian America.”

A growing number of evangelicals are now realizing that was a mistake. They are speaking out. More power to their voices — especially as we enter an election season where churches are being urged to intervene in partisan campaigns in inappropriate and even illegal ways.

The campaign to maintain the wall of separation between church and state has always been broadly based, encompassing everyone from the most devout believer to the most committed atheist.

If, as we hope, more and more evangelicals embrace Boyd’s view, those of us who have labored as often-lonely sentries on the wall for so many years would be foolish to do anything but welcome them home with open arms.