Faith & Politics After the Religious Right (Part 2)
Brian McLaren on the future of Christians in politics.

Brian McLaren believes the Religious Right movement has lost credibility, but what will replace it? In part 1 of our interview McLaren called for a more mature Chrisitian engagement with politics, and warned about linking political ideology with our identity as followers of Christ.

In part two, he discusses the various models of Christian political engagement that have been attempted, and why a more imaginative model is needed.

You travel internationally quite a bit. Do you see a place where Christians are having that kind of positive impact on the government outside the United States?

Let me first say the same kind of religious right rhetoric happening here is being exported through religious broadcasting all over the world. I've been in countries where abortion is illegal and the church is constantly talking about it, even though it's already illegal, because they think this is what Christians are supposed to do because they hear it from the US. So it's strange. But to answer your question, yes, I do see it working out in powerful ways but most often in very local ways. In terms of national affairs I think it's a little harder to find, but that's also harder to do.

One of the issues I think we're really facing is that in the last sixteen hundred years we basically had three options. We've had the idea of the Holy Roman Empire where the church was the umbrella under which the state existed. And then in the Protestant era of civil religion the church existed to help the state achieve its goals. The third option makes the church into an isolated subculture where it withdraws from society and sees politics as dirty.

I think one of our great crises now is that we need a fourth option - a new option. It's an option that takes us back to the first three centuries of the church. I would call it more of a prophetic role. We often use prophetic to mean negative. It's thundering against sin. But the prophets were also poets, and a big part of what they did, as Walter Brueggemann says, is they funded the imagination with good possibilities. They created pictures ? like swords being beaten into plowshares ? that gave believers in God something to believe God for.

Prophets criticize and energize, I believe that's the way he put it.

Exactly. So we need that prophetic voice not just in the critical sense but also in the energizing sense. We have to imagine. We have to imagine what it would look like to have a nation where the gap between rich and poor was not so great. We have to imagine how that could that happen in an equitable way. I'm not saying in a painless way. The fact is we have a lot of pain now. You always have pain. But at any rate, that to me is the role that the church needs to have.

June 19, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 11 comments

R. Dailey

July 03, 2007  1:09pm

As a younger evangelical, I concur with much of what McLaren says. If one objects to some of his left-leaning politics, then read much of the same thing in Mike Gerson's columns in WaPost. Both McLaren and Gerson recognize that educated twenty- and thirty-something evangelicals have no stomach for the religious right. And as established evangelical institutions commit themselves to going down with the RR ship, educated younger evangelicals are abandoning those institutions in droves. Unless the RR loyalists can let go of their vision, their churches and institutions will die with their generation. One post above mentioned that there are only two positions on abortion. It's hard to imagine that any public policy issue can be reduced to two positions, no less one as complex as abortion. Adherence to such false dichotomies is part of the problem with the RR's rhetoric. If we want social change, we need to get out of our evangelical echo chambers and start mingling with the prostitutes and tax collectors of our world. Until now, evangelicals have largely engaged the world vicariously through the charicatures served up to us by guys like Dobson, Colson, Robertson, Olasky, etc. Most younger evangelicals have little desire to keep living in the RR echo chamber. Yet we also face the prospect that we may have to venture out into the world on our own while the older evangelicals go down with the ship. Many criticize us for having no clear vision. Well, we have to start somewhere. Getting to know our neighbors seems like a good place to begin.

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Nathan Ketsdever

July 01, 2007  1:53pm

This is a great discussion, as I think it gets to the heart of one of the most significant spiritual and political issues of our generation. Most of the criticism of McLaren & Wallis so far boils down to: The rhetoric of McLaren and Wallis seem very one sided to me. McLaren and Wallis have a perspective. True. That's their job. So did Gandhi. So did MLK. So did Martin Luther. Their advocacy and consciousness raising seems to serve three key purposes to me: (and probably more) McLaren and Wallis exist to give a more vocal platform to the political left. Second, they also exist to give balance to a radically unbalanced debate in the area of Biblical, spiritual, and moral values which has been mostly silent—at least in terms of numbers and media coverage. (some would call this phenomena in communication jargon "a spiral of silence"—even if I don't agree with the original application of the term to leftists on the abortion debate) And some, including myself, would argue they exist to give voice to God's word. One core idea I would like to advance is that I think thinking of this debate in terms of a cultural discussion rather than a simply a political one . Our Christianity in cultural and social terms means living out Christian love the other 364 days of the year that we aren't able to vote. It means holding the folks who get into power at the ballot box, the counter of consumerism, and the CEO office accountable. I think it means living our lives out in service to our global neighbors, particularly the less fortunate and most disadvantaged. Faith in Action is Spiritual Service and Love. Period. What do folks think? What's your perspective?

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Mark Pike

June 27, 2007  9:11pm

I am very leery of Brian McLaren and Jim Wallis criticizing the Religious Right as if the Religious Left never existed. The Religious Left has not been timid when it comes to political engagement, being fully in bed with the Democratic Party for decades. The rhetoric of McLaren and Wallis seem very one sided to me.

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June 23, 2007  7:48pm

Mr. D. King, I am surely grateful for the correction you've generously provided regarding my to some extent heated post. I, however, would like you to consider the existence of some necessity to repeat the obvious truth from the Word of God of life, which miraculously became not so obvious anymore to His people. There is quite painful reality of death culture ruling in my home country of Ukraine, when millions of babies are torn out because the society, driven by power and money hunger, does not care. Yet the churches, the majority of churches, I should say, live their own isolated life. In cynical situation, when nobody cares a young girl stands absolutely alone before the harsh reality of her life. Again, thank you for correcting my misunderstanding.

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Darren King

June 21, 2007  11:37pm

I am very surprised by how many people seem to misunderstand Brian, and much of the Emerging Church movement. When Brian says that Evangelicals have been co-opted by the Republican Party, his point is that a few trigger issues are paraded about as if they are the sum total of Christian teaching. In regards to the one person's comment regarding what Brian said about the abortion issue and foreign Christian radio, his point was NOT that abortion is not an important issue, but rather that, considering it is already illegal in these foreign countries, going on and on about it seems rather pointless. For now, that point is already won. His point is, why not address the issues that ARE key in each particular location- rather than following the issues pertinant solely to the American political landscape. Lastly, I must say that I agree somewhat with people's concern with Sojourners. I have found this to be one particular organization that does slide heavily in one particular political direction. In my mind, Sojourners is often as bad as the Religious Right in regards to it co-opting of the Faith, and of the Bible, to suit its own agenda. I'm hoping for an honest dialog that avoids rhetoric and selective bible quoting- from both sides of the political spectrum. And I mean dialog, not sermon-shouting from across the room.

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June 21, 2007  6:56pm

"I've been in countries where abortion is illegal and the church is constantly talking about it, even though it's already illegal, because they think this is what Christians are supposed to do because they hear it from the US. So it's strange." - No, We're not such a simple-brained people, Mr. McLaren, and never were. We simply read the Bible, sir; in my case, it's a Russian-English parallel edition. Beautiful book. So it's in the Bible. In fact, during severe Soviet era persecutions, when my father, a Pentecostal minister, was arrested a few times and then persecuted to his death; at some historical point the church in the Soviet Union could only survive for only one simple reason – we all had large families! Yes, sir, in a completely godless and hostile environment we must choose to obey the Word of the living God literally. It later helped us also to effectively supply the Kingdom with many dedicated missionaries, when the preaching of Gospel exploded after Mr. Gorbachev's Perestroika. But the problem with relevance of the teaching, imported there by some foreign missionary tourists, indeed, takes place in Ukraine and Russia, some other former Soviet countries. It is widely known as The Prosperity Gospel.

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Wayne Shockley

June 21, 2007  2:28pm

Whenever I read Brian McLaren, I invariably wind up frustrated by his generalities and vagueness. Like many others, he says evangelicals are too close to the Republican party. Will one of those critics please define "too close" in specific terms? All too often, it means we should stop being conservative Republicans and become liberal Democrats. From a Christian perspective, that's not an improvement. The second problem for Christian involvement in politics is the temptation to simplistic policies. E.g., McLaren thinks we should do something about the income gap between rich and poor. That betrays the liberal ideology that the rich are such because they exploit the poor. Helping the poor does not require reducing the rich. There are other more effective things that we can do to reduce poverty, e.g. discourage teen-age illegitimacy. The third problem is the biggest: the package deal. If you help elect a candidate because of his stands on some issues, then you get all of his policies, whether you like them or not. Christians should involve themselves in politics one issue at a time by emphasizing the specific issues and making it loud and clear that their support of a candidate for one issue does not carry over to other issues. It's not easy, but its the only alternative to the conflict between disengagement on the one hand and being captured by a political party on the other.

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Darren King

June 21, 2007  9:47am

Brian's (via Brueggemann's) point that a prophetic voice is necessary in order to lend imagination to the process of governing- is well taken. The reason why imagination is SO essential is that limited views of the political process very quickly become instituionalized forms of political expression. In other words, people soon see one or two options as the ONLY ones available. This has a lot to do with our sound-bite size culture- that does not lend itself well to new ideas that take more than 30 seconds to summarize. For those who think Brian is being naive to hope for new options, history teaches us that it is prophetic voices, above all else, that have shaped the history of change. We often lose sight of this because we limit our view to the last 10 years or so. But if you look back with a more historical lens, you see that new voices with new ideas have created enormous change at certain key periods in history.

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June 20, 2007  6:00pm

I've read almost all of BMcL's books and for the most part loved them all. -However- I've been disappointed with the change I've seen recently from "spritual" Brian to "political" Brian. I agree that Jesus was not Republican or Democrat, and I understand that we shouldn't make our identity as Christians so closely aligned with that of the GOP, but his answer to that seems to be to make our identity as Christians aligned with the Democratic Party. (He's now part of Jim Wallis and Sojourners which, near as I can tell, is to the Dems what Dobson and FOTF are to the GOP. Next year he's going on tour with a large donor to John Kerry's '04 campaign.) Am I missing something? Maybe I'm one of the true believers of the Religious Right that is going down with the ship, but if Jesus were an American citizen I still don't think he would vote for Hillary Obama-Edwards. I DO like what he says here, and my prayer is that we CAN "prophesy" to our politicians in both parties and make a positive difference.

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Mark Goodyear

June 20, 2007  8:26am

McLaren says, "The prophets were also poets, and ... they funded the imagination with good possibilities." As someone who loves poetry and writes it a bit, that just tickles me to death. But I admit that it leaves me a little confused about how Christians are supposed to engage in politics. I guess McLaren means we should provide a positive vision, rather than a negative one? We should encourage families to stay together rather than attack the various perceived threats to "The Family"? I worry this stance is a bit naive. Our system of politics seems to function on debate and argument and spin. When the two sides are pro-choice and pro-life, everyone has already admitted the need to provide "positive vision." The problem is that we aren't earnest. We spin our ideas to seem positive, but the context of politics itself forces us to take sides, dig trenches, and fight to the political death for our ideals. I believe God calls Christians to minister in all walks of life. That must include politics. But for the life of me, I do not know what it looks like for me to serve God as a voter (even an activist?) in the political world. If there are people out there who are active in politics, I'd love to hear how you balance the truths of your faith with the self-promotion necessary to win votes and defeat opponents.

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