By Kevin Glenn
Not long ago I received two e-mails on the same day. One was from a colleague who copied me and other pastors in his reply to a message from Michelle Obama just before she spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
His message to the First Lady included hearty words of congratulation for the passion and quality of her speech. It went on to affirm that “we” were proud of Mrs. Obama and that she could count on “our” support to make sure her husband is re-elected.
The other came from my local Baptist association. It was a plea to support a motion picture being released by an organization connected with the “Discovering God in America” movement championed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
The film depicts religious freedom as under attack and blends support for the war — along with Christmas — with an appeal to vote for Republican candidates as a demonstration of faithfulness to both God and country.
Both seemed to assume that as a pastor they could count on my support.
I have not publicly endorsed either presidential candidate and will not do so, because neither defines me as a citizen or as a follower of Jesus. Jesus does not belong to either political party, and our faith should not be mingled with political agendas. Our cause is Christ.
We are in the midst of yet another attempt by the church to influence culture through political engagement. After decades of this failed approach by Christians leaning both right and left, both church and politics are the worse for it.
The upcoming election, low approval rating of Congress, economic situation, rumors of scandal and cover-up and other troubling factors have produced an environment of polarization and incivility unprecedented in recent memory. In the words of comedian Dennis Miller, “I don’t trust any politician; they are all hacks.” Such an attitude is reflected in the widespread distrust among Americans toward politicians from both sides. At last, something with bi-partisan support!
From a faith perspective, many churches this Sunday morning will not be a place for Christians to turn aside from such an environment in order to worship Christ. In far too many places of worship and among far too many people of faith there will exist suspicion, division and polarization brought on by partisan politics among the very men and women who are called instead to be united by our allegiance to Jesus Christ.
As the church has increased its involvement in politics, its influence in culture has waned. Christians today are known more by their political affiliation than by the message of the gospel or its ethic of unconditional love.
I can hear the questions, concerns and even objections from friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle: “Kevin, are you saying that followers of Jesus should be politically disengaged?”
Not at all, but we must not allow a political party to do our thinking for us. No party is perfect, so we must think biblically, critically and independently. As Ross Douthat writes, “Honor belongs to the people who resist partisanship’s pull instead of rowing with it.”
Messiah College professor Crystal Downing uses the image of a coin to describe differing perspectives people may have on any given issue. It is natural to allow the coin to fall onto one side or the other, obscuring and obliterating the other side. She suggests the Christian should have the vigilance to remain balanced on the edge of the coin, engaging both right and left, past and future, tradition and change, Republican and Democrat.
Such a position comes neither quickly nor easily. The edge is risky. It requires constant adjustment. It is a place where both conversation and confrontation from both sides are geographical hazards.
It’s exactly where I believe the church is supposed to be. On the edge, the church is positioned to do far more than just make a political point. On the edge, we’re poised to make an eternal difference.