Christian commentators discuss religion’s role in politics
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Christian activism is needed in the nation's political realm, but some organized efforts such as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition have trivialized some moral issues, conservative columnist Cal Thomas said today at a First Amendment Center program.
Thomas, once a Falwell spokesman, joined three other panelists to discuss “Religion and Politics 2000.” Thomas and Edward Dobson, a Michigan pastor who also worked for Falwell for more than 10 years, co-wrote the recent book, Blinded by Might, in which they criticize the Christian right's failure to understand the political arena and its propensity to rely on politicians to fulfill its religious agenda.
Thomas and Dobson's concerns are not new. In 1993, Stephen Carter, a Yale law professor, wrote in The Culture of Disbelief that “it is difficult to see any gain to religion from the unswerving effort to take control of the apparatus of the state.” Carter concluded that if the “religiously devout come to treat their faith communities as simple interest groups, involved in a general competition for secular power, it should come as no surprise if everybody else looks at them the same way.”
The other speakers were Jimmy Allen, a Baptist preacher and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention; Joe Loconte, of the Heritage Foundation, a D.C.-based conservative think tank; and James Thomas, a Nashville pastor, debated the worthiness of the Christian's right continued involvement in the national political arena.
Blinded by Might does not call for “a separation of people of faith from politics” nor from political office, Cal Thomas said, but it does urge religious communities nationwide to lead by example and to “improve a culture that is wrong.” Thomas conceded that he was not sure how a mass movement of individuals to Christian morals would take place.
“How do you persuade a former hippie who is now a university professor that he should not have been smoking dope and that he should now be preaching abstinence and the need to stay true to one's faith?” Thomas asked.
Loconte, however, predicted optimistic outcomes for an American moral enlightenment by noting that even a leading Democrat, Al Gore, had championed the idea of building a strong partnership between government and churches to “help solve social issues.”
Such “charitable-choice” measures, Loconte said, spur religions to become involved in the political arena. A charitable-choice provision included in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act permits churches to use federal funds to operate job-training services. Charitable choice also allows religious groups to use the federal funds without altering their religious missions or hiring individuals who do not share their dogma.
“Cultural transformation is what we need,” Loconte said. “We must challenge the faith profession to engage in politics.”
Allen disagreed, saying he did not find charitable-choice initiatives “all that hopeful.”
Allen said he was concerned that churches would give up too much independence by accepting government financing and suggested that organized religion should temper its political ambition.
“Religion should not take over a political power structure,” Allen said. “There is no such thing as a Christian Party or Christian economics.”
Allen said religious communities should “create a climate of concern” that would force politicians to take notice.
The Rev. James Thomas, whose Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville has attracted notice for its community involvement, said charitable choice was not the answer to racism, poverty and other social ills.
“It would not work,” Thomas said. “I don't trust the government in our church. The black church must be free to speak. The government did nothing for the black church during the civil rights movement and today they want to give us money and shut our mouths.”
Dobson, who besides working with Cal Thomas is pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., said charitable choice “sounds good,” but “when on the dance floor, the government looks like an octopus.”
Dobson said religious groups should strive to actively deal with social injustices and ills, such as racism, police brutality, AIDS and single parenthood, without government motivation. “It has been a failure of churches to live out our faiths in genuine ways,” he said.