WASHINGTON – The evangelical movement is too involved in partisan politics, said the authors of a new book questioning the role Christian religion will play in the future political landscape.
The pair participated in a panel discussion and book signing Wednesday night in Washington, D.C.
Political writers Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner paint a very real picture of the evangelical movement in their book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era.
The evangelical movement in politics, beginning in the 1970s and leading up to the 21st century, has been a defensive one, they said. The movement was led by a vast leadership stepping up to combat the social ills of the day – abortion, banning prayer in schools and attempts to regulate Christian schools.
From the year 2000 up to today, the evangelicals' political leadership has declined as its leaders decline in age, the authors noted. The movement’s tone has become largely negative, and some evangelicals are looking for new forms of public engagement.
According to the writers, the recent descent of Christianity’s political right is a direct result of becoming too close with Washington. Evangelism, they said, has become synonymous with partisan politics, and hard-line religious positions have become the battle tools of politicians.
As Gerson put it, “It is too closely identified with one ideology, one political party. At the point when your entire political agenda is determined by the contours of someone else’s political ideology, it’s easy to become a tool [of power play] and be seen to that by the public.”
On Wednesday night, panelist and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat pointed to Republican and Tea Party activists as an example of how politicians have come to set the religious tone in politics.
“Who is the most prominent evangelical active in American politics today? Sarah Palin,” Douthat said.
Palin, a self-proclaimed conservative Christian, is a hard-line Republican who has drawn large crowds to the Tea Party movement with spirited discussions on pro-life and pro-family issues.
“It’s very tricky ground when you get involved in politics,” said Wehner, a columnist and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Once you are involved, it is “hard to stay clean,” he added.
However, Wehner and Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, do not encourage a total removal from politics. When that moral guidance is withdrawn, Gerson cautioned, the result is similar to that of Nazi Germany.
In their new book, the co-authors point to German Christians and their failure to denounce the Nazi movement. Their failure, it states, demoralized the Lutheran church, robbed it of credibility and gravely impacted society.
The authors also warn against the opposite mentality, which institutes theology through the government. Gerson pointed out that Christian Conservatives have wrongly equated “the American experiment with the covenant of Israel.”
He reminded Christians, “We live in a human kingdom as citizens from another kingdom.”
As such, Christians should try to influence the political debate without become entrenched in it, the authors wrote in their book. The Christian influence is critical, Gerson stated, because the Christian faith provides a unique moral guidance that is lacking in world politics.
“Christians do not have a purely procedural view of justice … and we don’t have an egalitarian view of justice,” he noted.
Instead, Christians judge justice based on how “the least of these” are treated, he asserted.
Given the Christian definition of justice, Gerson and Wehner encouraged evangelicals to adopt the political approach similar to that used throughout the civil rights area.
“I do think that Martin Luther King was an example in several respects,” said Wehner. “He articulated his case and his cause in a way that spoke truth in his day.”
He lauded King for his ability to use words that inspired believers and non-believers alike to pursue justice for an alienated people and casted him as an example of religion and politics at its best.
In the here and now, Gerson said, evangelicals are living in a “plastic moment” where it can choose to return to a previous style of engagement centered on justice. He said evangelicals must pursue issues of justice even if those issues cross political lines.
Adding to the remark, Douthat said Christians must also recognize there is no single, solitary Christian political ideology.
“There is not one Christian politics,” he stressed. “There are many Christian politics and there are many ways that we are all [searching] for the appropriate way to engage in politics.”
“The biggest mistake I think so many believers make is to just say, ‘I’m into Christian politics. My beliefs led me to be pro-life, [and] against gay marriage. I affiliate with the Republican Party and therefore I also know what I think about health care, foreign policy, tax policy and so on.”
But when Christian conservatives focus on issues of justice, the political agenda expands from simply abortion and gay marriage to include human rights issues such as poverty and the global AIDS epidemic, Gerson pointed out.
Already, the contemporary evangelical movement has moved in that direction, with younger evangelicals, especially, making the environment, genocide, poverty and AIDS top issues on their agenda. The authors note in their book that an increasing number of evangelicals want their brand of politics to be “less partisan and bitter “and “more high-minded and more firmly rooted in principles.”
“In short, they seem to be looking for a politics that is both moral and civil. And, they are thirsting for more serious Christian reflection on human society and the human person – on first principles,” they wrote.
Evangelicals, Wehner underscored, must always strive to maintain the integrity of the message rather than wage political war. “When in doubt, preserve the integrity of the church,” he instructed.
The Wednesday night book discussion and signing was hosted by publishing house and leadership academy The Trinity Forum and Pepperdine University.