The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 2: Faith and Politics

evangelicalism-2017In the previous blog, I discussed issue #1 for evangelicals: the decline of biblical authority. Here is the second issue:

2. Separation of politics and faith is more and more difficult.

Recent elections have been polarizing in the Christian world, and I mean more than the presidential primaries and election. It is often assumed that evangelicals vote as a block and must be courted by candidates. It is true that evangelicals represent 10-20% of those who vote, numbers that may be decisive in close elections. One problem with this political analysis is the ignoring of minority communities, for many black or Latino churches would be considered evangelical except their members are not white working class folks and, therefore, outside the evangelical voting block.

Therefore, the “evangelical vote” is loosely defined on things other than church membership. It includes white people with right-wing political loyalties who attend church with some regularity but with many exceptions. It has a strange mix of covert or overt racism, rural anger at urbanites, demand for tax cuts, unrelenting criticism for public schools, and a patriotic bent that idealizes America of the past. Hot buttons for the “evangelical” voter are support for America’s military and for the nation of Israel. For politicos, the “evangelical vote” may include conservative Catholics and Mormons, distinctions lost on national media and pundits.

At Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meetings, this is evident. There is a large block of members, perhaps the majority, who seem unable to understand that not all the members are right-wing Republicans. For some, the message seems to be that if there are disagreements here, the non-right-wing Republicans should resign their memberships for it is impossible to separate the society from politics. To me, this is seen in two specific events, one in 2015 and one in 2016.

First event: In 2015, the business meeting of the ETS was used to pass four resolutions relating to gay marriage and sexual identity. (See Stanley Gundry’s analysis of this situation here.) These resolutions covered topics that have been studied and debated within the society for many years. It seemed in 2015 as if the time for debate or disagreement was declared over, and the majority conclusions in these areas were now required areas of orthodoxy for ETS members.

I was unable to attend this meeting, held in Atlanta, but would have voted “no” on the resolutions. This is not because I fundamentally disagreed with their intent (although one of the unspoken agendas is to deny women an equal role to men in church leadership). It is because this is not what the ETS exists for. Gay marriage (which I do not support) has become a political issue. Let us keep studying and presenting a biblical answer to this issue for public use, but there is nothing in the stated purpose of the ETS that either expects or even allows for this sort of action, unprecedented in its history as far as I know. I do not want the ETS to be seen as politically partisan and I am saddened that many members have no concept of separating the ETS from political frays.

Second event: In 2016, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave an opportunity for President Obama to appoint a justice to the highest court. In defiance of the Constitution, this nomination was blocked without a hearing. Many evangelicals saw this unprecedented maneuver as a victory, hoping a new President would appoint a justice who would participate in a reversal of Rowe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion in America. The evangelical politicians who claimed to be “constitutionalists” were hypocritically comfortable with this disregard for the intent of the Constitution when it suited their religious and political agenda. I think this will be regretted. There is more at stake in Supreme Court personnel than the abortion issue: pro- or anti-business decisions, voter suppression laws, etc. I believe we will need to weather an intense constitutional crisis before we ever see a new member on the nation’s highest court. Many evangelicals will think this is worth the fight no matter how destructive that battle may be.

This attitude is exemplified by politicians who campaign on the promise to “go to Washington and fight,” an appealing message to many evangelicals. Politics is a battleground, not a system (however flawed) to elect leaders who will govern the nation. This may be understood in biblical ways: challenging the Pharaoh, denouncing the corrupt and heretical kings of Israel, resisting the hostile Roman empire; all seen as exemplars for citizens fighting against their own government.

Let illustrate this in my own state. The current governor, Pete Ricketts, is widely praised, even admired, by evangelicals in the state of Nebraska. He wins support by promising to cut property taxes (even while the state is facing a $900M budget deficit, huge for Nebraska). He led a voter referendum to repeal the legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty in the state, even contributing from his own vast fortune for this purpose. He gives the appearance of fighting the government for conservative voters (even though he is the government). These are moves applauded by many evangelicals. But Ricketts is not an evangelical, he is a Roman Catholic. The religious connections with evangelical church-goers is weak, the political connection is strong.

The separation of faith and politics is nearly impossible for some, and politics is often the trump card.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not his employer.

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