Christian-Republican alliance: Faustian bargain?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

“My pastor kept asking us to pray for George Bush to win,” a Georgia woman told me last week, “and most folks seemed to go along with it. So I just kept quiet and secretly prayed for the other side.”

She’s not alone. A majority of frequent churchgoers may have voted for President Bush (if surveys are right), but a large minority voted for Sen. John Kerry. Not all Christians — not even all evangelicals — are born-again Republicans.

But the word “Christian” (not unlike the word “moral”) is increasingly tied in the news media to the word “Republican,” thanks to the successful alliance between Karl Rove and leaders of the religious right. (In one pre-election news account, a minister described comforting a parishioner who anxiously asked if he could remain a Christian and vote for Kerry.)

Growing numbers of Christians are alarmed by the hijacking of their faith. In an editorial last week, Robert Parham of the moderate Baptist Center for Ethics vowed to “take on the religious right more forcefully — critiquing its false religion and anointment of the GOP as God’s Only Party.”

Meanwhile, emboldened by the perception that evangelicals decided the election, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and other evangelical leaders close to the White House are already lining up to claim the spoils. They expect to have the power to shape the Republican agenda on everything from constitutional amendments to Supreme Court appointments.

But before conservative Christians get too comfortable with this church-state alliance, they would do well to remember a bit of familiar wisdom: Those who seek power by riding the back of the tiger end up inside.

The unprecedented mobilization of evangelical churches by the Republican Party and religious right leaders may have helped win an election, but it could end badly for people of faith in the pews. History teaches that partisan politics inevitably corrupts religion and divides the church.

As another Dobson, the Rev. Edward Dobson, wrote some years ago in Christianity Today, “the church — as the church — cannot allow itself to be co-opted by political action; and pastors and others who speak for the church cannot allow themselves to be distracted from the gospel by partisan engagement. As a former board member for the Moral Majority, I know the potential dangers of this kind of political activity — the possible jettisoning of the gospel for a political agenda.”

Some Christian churches have already tasted the fruits of the Christian-Republican alliance. By executive order, President Bush has opened the floodgates of funding through his “faith-based initiative.” Millions of tax dollars now flow to churches for a whole range of programs — with inadequate First Amendment safeguards to uphold religious liberty.

With government shekels come government shackles. Not only do churches risk losing their autonomy; they risk losing their prophetic voice. A church compromised by partisan politics and dependent on government funds can no longer distance itself from the culture and can no longer call the government to account for its failures.

This threat to religious faith from church-state entanglement is precisely what James Madison warned about during the great battle for disestablishment in Virginia more than 200 years ago. Warning against state support for religion, he argued from history:

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

Madison understood then what leaders of the religious right would have Christians forget today: When churches join forces with any political party, they are lured into a Faustian bargain — trading the authentic power of faith for the fleeting rewards of worldly influence.

Before heeding the voices of false prophets on the far right, Christians would do well to recall the warning of Jesus himself:

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

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