It’s not the bastion of secular humanism that some critics claim.
To outsiders, Bible studies and prayer meetings may not be the most scintillating events crowding a U.S. congressman’s calendar, but opportunities for Christian fellowship on Capitol Hill are drawing larger crowds than ever before.
Each week, up to one-fourth of the nation’s 100 senators gather for a Wednesday morning prayer breakfast. Hundreds of congressional staff members pack out lunchtime Bible studies and evening singles’ groups. Even the Capitol Hill police have a new monthly Bible study, led by Senate chaplain Richard C. Halverson. Many groups emerge spontaneously out of shared needs and friendships, and others are initiated by evangelical groups or individuals who minister to Congress.
Close-knit covenant groups appear to be a main source of strength for elected leaders who encounter staggering pressures on the job. Congressman Don Bonker (D-Wash.) observes, “This is a tough place to walk straight. We need the reinforcement that can only come when brothers in Christ get together. Otherwise, the dynamics of this job are such that we’d stray very quickly from the path.”
Bonker lunches each Wednesday with three other members of the House of Representatives, including two Republicans and one fellow Democrat. “We open with prayer and get into the Scriptures right away,” Bonker explains. The meetings have continued for three years.
On the Senate side, similar groups have mushroomed in recent years, and attendance at the Wednesday prayer breakfasts has more than doubled. The Wednesday sessions are strictly off the record and feature one senator each week, who brings a message or shares a personal testimony. Among the regular participants are Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Mark O. Hatfield (R-Oreg.), William Armstrong (R-Colo.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) and Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.).
Monthly Senate staff prayer breakfasts draw well over 100 participants to hear speakers ranging from Charles Colson to Dallas Cowboy coach Tom Landry. Those who attend are urged to “bring a friend next time.” Wives of senators can attend a weekly Bible study organized by Dee Jepson, wife of Oregon Republican Roger Jepson. All this activity reflects that, in Senator Grassley’s words, “there are more Christians in Congress than the average citizen believes.”
Just how many committed Christians there are in Congress is a difficult question to answer. Those involved in Christian ministry on Capitol Hill estimate that roughly 25 of the 100 senators could be counted, but no one would even begin to guess at the number in the much larger House of Representatives (435 members).
Last December, Psychology Today magazine reported the surprising results of a survey of congressmen and their religious beliefs, done by psychologist Peter L. Benson. His interviewing team found that Congress as a whole is just as religious as the American public generally. Indeed, it may even be more so. That’s because 90 percent of the congressmen interviewed were men, and men tend to rank lower on spiritual matters than women. “If Congress were compared with American men only, it is likely that members would seem considerably more religious than the American public,” Benson wrote.
Benson found that of his survey sample of 80 congressmen, 95 percent believe in God, as compared with 94 percent of the public at large; 71 percent of congressmen believe Christ is divine, compared with 83 percent of the American public; 80 percent of congressmen believe Scripture is the word of God, compared with 67 percent of the public; and 30 percent of congressmen have had a born-again experience, compared with 34 percent of the public.
Benson’s study found that although most evangelicals in Congress are political conservatives, a significant minority are among the most politically liberal in Congress. Overall, the study flies in the face of strident arguments from conservative writers and preachers, who condemn Congress as a bastion of secular humanism.
Christians who are veterans of Capitol Hill see the spiritual quickening in terms of a willingness on the part of more believers to be open about their faith. Thomas R. Getman, chief legislative assistant to Senator Hatfield, spent more than 14 years on the Young Life staff before joining the Senate staff six years ago. “I feel as much in the ministry now as I did in Young Life,” he says. “The real call of God in our lives is to be loving, faithful, obedient people—not to change the world through legislation.”
As a mission field, Congress has been quietly cultivated through the years by Christians who view themselves as “facilitators” responding to needs that are brought to their attention. The most significant work has come from “the fellowship,” a low-key group that is best known for the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
Senate chaplain Halverson worked with the fellowship for 20 years before accepting his present post in 1981. He defends their total publicity blackout, saying, “The minute we start telling people how God is using us, we will violate the very principle we feel committed to.” Congressmen fear being exploited, and their concern is well founded. One man involved in the fellowship movement said he was contacted by a network television news team who wanted to send over a camera crew and tape a congressman “being born again.” The answer was a blunt “no.”
Another organization that has gained the trust and acclaim of wary congressmen is Christian Embassy, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. After a shaky start in 1976, when Campus Crusade director Bill Bright was linked with right-wing political efforts, embassy staffers have been more circumspect in their work and are solidly nonpartisan.
Embassy director Rodney “Swede” Anderson, 43, explained that the embassy ministers to other branches of government, the military, and the diplomatic community, as well as to Congress. Their emphasis is on low-pressure evangelism and follow-up. “No one asks us for advice on political matters,” Anderson says, and if someone did, he would not give it anyway. “I don’t even know how my own staff voted in 1980.”
Like other Campus Crusade missionaries, embassy staff members raise their own support. Anderson coordinates his efforts closely with fellowship people and shares their disdain for publicity. He finds there is “a temptation to pride when ministering among influential people. The Lord does not share his glory. Being here has heightened my sensitivity to that.”
James E. “Johnny” Johnson, active with the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship, hosts a Saturday morning prayer time for congressmen each month. Johnson explains, “We do this because congressmen perhaps would not go to a church and get up and say ‘I need some prayer.’ But in their own environment, they will come up and ask for prayer, and they will pray for others.”
Somewhat more controversial are occasional extravaganzas where big names and big money combine in an evangelistic effort. The most recent example was a Kennedy Center performance of Someone Special, a musical about the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Starring Pat Boone and Carol Lawrence, the show attracted an overflow crowd from Washington’s upper crust. The next day, a perplexed Washington Post reported, “It was not a fund raiser, premiere, or apparent promotion. For anyone. Unless you count Jesus Christ.”
The program’s coordinator, Robert Pittenger, is a transplanted Texan who has been spreading the gospel in the capital for just over a year. Some congressmen express uneasiness over the political interests behind the money that supports him, coming from Colorado’s Coors family and oil billionaire Bunker Hunt of Texas, among others.
Any hint of political overtones sends congressmen running the other way, and ministries with staying power provide an escape from partisan maneuvering and manipulation. Anderson, of Christian Embassy, explains: “When a man’s heart and mind are saturated with Scripture, that affects his whole view of life. It leads men in politics down different roads.”
Hatfield, for example, recently introduced a resolution calling for a freeze on nuclear weapon production. Conservative Charles Grassley has supported military expenditures, fully aware that some fellow Christians will fault him for it. Both men base their positions on Christian stewardship.
For Don Bonker, arriving at a position on any given issue does not mean it is the only “Christian” answer. Rather than praying for direction on specific votes, Bonker says he prays for overall guidance. “It’s like being on an athletic team. You don’t pray to win, but to honor God as you play.”
At a seminar for evangelical students in 1980, Bonker said, “As politicians we are elected to solve society’s problems, but as Christians we acknowledge that we cannot solve even our own problems without God’s help. And so we try to apply our faith in ways that are meaningful, try to share and uphold one another in a way that will keep our priorities straight and strengthen our own personal commitment.”
Finding courage to do the right thing from day to day is the greatest single need of men and women in Congress, says Swede Anderson. Getting Christians elected is only the beginning. Once they are in office, understanding and prayer support from the grassroots become even more critical.
Richard Halverson: Prayer Warrior In The U.S. Senate
The issue of forced busing to achieve racial integration brought on a nerve-racking, eight-month filibuster in the U.S. Senate, marked by flaring tempers and damaging accusations toward the end. On the day the filibuster collapsed in compromise, Senate chaplain Richard C. Halverson opened the session with prayer as usual, cognizant of the sparks flying between liberals and conservatives.
“Father in heaven, when pressure becomes heavy between those who hold opposing views, we are less inclined to concentrate on issues and more inclined to think personally.…
“Keep us mindful that we debate a point, not because we are stubborn and inflexible, but because we are strongly convinced that our position is the best.… Never allow us to feel that love is unbecoming the dignity and decorum of this powerful body. Gracious, loving Lord, help us to conduct all our business on this floor, as well as in our offices and homes, in love.”
Three hours later, according to one observer, the acrimony subsided for good, and opposing senators were voicing mutual support and respect. “Halverson’s prayer described the mood perfectly. God was faithful to that prayer,” a Senate staff aide said.
When people ask the white-haired chaplain what he does all day, the answer comes easily. “The most important thing I do is pray. It would be accurate to say I’m preoccupied with it. I’m beginning to learn what Paul meant when he said ‘pray without ceasing.’ ”
Halverson regards his opening prayers as seriously now as he did his sermons at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, where he served as pastor for 22 years.
His preoccupation with prayer, however, has brought him a lion’s share of criticism. Columnists in the press have accused him of doing nothing, and he continues to be harassed by a suit against him by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The suit charges that public money should not be spent for a chaplain.
Christians on Capitol Hill—whether they guard the doors or chair a committee—know Halverson and call his pastoral presence an inspiration. Once, a policeman stopped him in the hall and asked if he would pray for the officer’s ailing mother. Halverson paused to pray on the spot, to the policeman’s amazement.
The chaplain leaves his door open for individual counseling, conducts a monthly Bible study for Capitol Hill police, and has responded to a request from staff members by starting a popular topical study during Friday lunch hours.
“I feel God has called me to equip the laity. The cutting edge of the body of Christ is where the laity is between Sundays,” he says. Halverson senses an increased momentum in the work of the Holy Spirit in Congress, and gives two reasons for it. First, groups like Campus Crusade’s Christian Embassy are making themselves available for ministry and are “more agressive, in a good sense, than they have been in the past.” Also, he sees “a growing sense of futility, a growing awareness of the bankruptcy of humanism, a growing sense of inadequacy” pervading the outlooks of even the most self-assured people in power.
Although he is relatively new to his Senate job, he has maintained close contact with senators and representatives throughout the past two decades. But there is no trace of the hard-boiled cynicism that can develop among people who watch the scandals come and go.
Instead, he says with conviction, “Senators are thoughtful, intelligent, and have a high sense of accountability to the nation and the people. The image at the grassroots is almost the opposite of what it is like in reality. You’re not going to find a higher level of integrity and purpose than you find here.”
North American Scene
Responding to a class action suit filed by former staff members against Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts (CT, April 23, p. 33), the chairman of the board, G. A. Hemwall, issued a call to prayer. He said in a special newsletter: “We are confident that the truth will be made known and that the allegations of mismanagement, etc., will not be upheld. Moreover, we have been advised that the complaints are substantially without merit. However, we care about the individuals involved and would ask you to pray with us that deeper needs would be understood and met.” Meanwhile, the institute’s seminars continued on schedule. Seven basic seminars and 11 seminars for pastors were held in March.
Biology graduates from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College can now be certified as teachers in Virginia public schools. In what the Washington Post hailed as a “victory for biblical creationism,” the Virginia Board of Education decided Liberty Baptist College graduates may teach biology in state high schools even though they are trained in scientific creationism. Only one person on the nine-member board voted against the accreditation. A professor of biology at James Madison University (Harrisburg), William Jones, compared creationism to voodoo before casting his negative vote. But other board members approved the program because it will teach students evolutionary theory as well as creationism.
Meanwhile, Falwell opened the doors to his church’s family center, a facility to help the “truly needy.” Selected food and used clothing are provided at a grocery sponsored by the Thomas Road Baptist Church. Applicants are visited by assistant pastors to determine if they really need the assistance. Unemployment in the Lynchburg area is currently at a high 7 percent. Falwell believes the family center will answer President Reagan’s call for voluntaryism and serve as a model to other fundamentalist churches. Too long, the evangelist said, that has been left to liberal religionists.
An Indian guru’s planned Oregon city may lose a third of its population before the gates are opened. Seventy-nine followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were ordered by immigration authorities to leave the country. Extensions of their tourist visas were denied because they did not prove they are tourists or that they plan to give up their homes abroad (most are Europeans). Rajneesh has 300 followers (counting the 79) in Oregon on 64,000 acres near Antelope. He hopes to incorporate the community and call it Rajneeshpuram (CT, April 23).
A group of Chicago Catholics wants the Vatican to order John Cardinal Cody to testify before a federal grand jury. The grand jury has been investigating allegations that the cardinal mismanaged up to $1 million in church funds to the benefit of his step-cousin. The cardinal has refused to testify, saying he is “answerable to Rome and to God.” Concerned Catholics of Chicago wrote Vatican officials, calling on them to “hold Cardinal Cody to that accountability.” Some Chicago Catholics are withholding financial support of the church due to the controversy, but Concerned Catholics believes that harms the local church. That, however, “does not diminish the outrage for the arrogance [of Cody] that makes many consider such means of expression,” they said.
Years of determination are showing fruit.
In every mainline Protestant denomination that has drifted from orthodoxy, there is a group of conservatives who refuse to leave, hoping somehow to bump their church off its liberal tracks, and reroute it back toward its historic roots.
The successes of these “renewalists” have certainly not been dramatic, nor even widely noticed, but years of quiet determination are finally showing fruit. Recently, 18 leaders of renewal movements in seven mainline denomninations gathered in Pittsburgh to assay their progress. Reports were mixed, but the leaders agreed that they are encouraged enough to stand their ground, anticipating that the flag of orthodoxy will yet be planted on surprising territory. Although the group has met annually five times before, this time they felt confident enough to adopt a name: the Fellowship of Renewal Group Leaders.
Renewal leaders in the northern and southern Presbyterian denominations, United Church of Christ, Church of the Brethren, and Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches attended the Pittsburgh meeting. Their featured speaker was Edmund Robb, the chairman of fire eyebrow-raising Institute on Religion and Democracy (CT, Feb. 19, p. 34) and former executive of the Good News movement, the United Methodist renewal engine.
Generally encouraged, Robb said after the conference that bad news is mixed with the good. He is pleased that the evangelical Asbury Theological Seminary now channels more pastors into United Methodist pulpits than any other Methodist seminary.
In a recent article on the surging growth of evangelicalism at the expense of mainline churches, the New York Times pointed out that the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary sends many of its graduates into the American Baptist and United Presbyterian churches in California. As a result, California’s Presbyterian churches are heavily weighted with evangelical ministers. The article said the same thing is happening in New England with the graduates of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Robb believes that the lay witness movement, which ignited in the United Methodist church, then spread to other denominations, has boosted renewal. Highly significant, he said, is the charismatic movement, since it penetrates not only every Protestant denomination but also the Roman Catholic communion. “Parachurch groups are making great impact,” Robb said, and many of the most effective youth parachurch groups are evangelical. Those like Inter-Varsity and Campus Crusade are drawing collegians to the faith and then sending them to seminaries with “Bibles in their hands and Christ in their hearts,” Robb observes.
Because of such factors, seminary students are more traditionalist than those of 10 or 20 years ago, he said. The old seminaries—Princeton, Harvard, and others—are not ignorant of the shift. Harvard Divinity School hopes to establish a chair in evangelical studies, perhaps to be named after Billy Graham.
Gordon-Conwell professor Richard Lovelace has been at the forefront of the renewal movement, especially in the United Presbyterian church. Lovelace is now forming the Foundation for Church Renewal. He hopes it will fuel renewal in such areas as Christian art, mass media, and social concern, both inside and outside the historic denominations. Among the notables who have agreed to serve on the board of the new foundation are Anglican theologian J. I. Packer, social activist Ron Sider, and Thomas Howard, a writer and teacher concerned for vigorous artistic expression in the church.
Whatever the gains, the renewal leaders have been in the game too long to engage in easy triumphalism. Donald Bloesch, a Presbyterian evangelical teaching at Dubuque (Iowa) Theological Seminary, thinks the “liberal establishment will be fighting back. As the moderate [evangelical] voice gets stronger, I predict even more tension.”
Those gathered at Pittsburgh listed several “highly urgent” concerns, including abortion, approval of homosexuality, radical feminism, and attempts to prohibit evangelizing of Jews. “The homosexual issue is certainly not dead,” said J. Robert Campbell of the Presbyterian Lay Committee. United Methodists agreed and cited the example of a known practicing homosexual whose ministry was approved by a Denver bishop despite strenuous opposition.
The renewal leaders at Pittsburgh were impressed by the vitality of one group in particular: the United Church of Christ’s People for Biblical Witness (PBW). Working in a denomination regarded as one of the nation’s most liberal, PBW is drawing increasing respect after five years of existence. Most recently the group sounded the alarm about a proposed “restatement” of the UCC’S 1959 statement of faith.
The revision fails to affirm the Holy Trinity and implies the Unitarian heresy,” PBW’S board charged. Barbara Weller, president of PBW, said, “Laity, theologians—all think the proposed statement is horrendous. We hope it will die a fast, quiet death.”
A “fast, quiet death” is, of course, the exact opposite of what is hoped for the renewal movements. Evangelicals, Robb insists, “must stay in” the mainline denominations. Too often, he fears, traditionalists retreat to “spiritual bomb shelters” just as they are about to win the battle. He believes they should not give up the fight.
Carl Henry On The Failure Of Liberal Arts Education
Our century has witnessed “the greatest overturn of ideas and ideals in the history of human thought,” according to evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry. Henry made this appraisal of the modern university in a banquet address at Toccoa Falls (Ga.) College, during the twenty-ninth annual southeastern regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS).
As this century began, Henry said, most liberal arts educators made fundamental assumptions. Among them: that truth is absolute and attainable, that man cannot arrive at utopia without a change in his own nature, and that Scripture’s God provides an ultimate reference point for thinking about personal and social values and coherence in the universe. A radical shift of presuppositions began about 1925 and has since turned all these assumptions on their heads.
Instead of looking to God to underlie rational thought and morality, modern liberal arts educators have created their own pantheon of gods, Henry said. Today “shared values,” rather than the deity, define social ethics and determine personal standards. Rather than utilizing divine law to transform the social order, the naturalistic mindset looks to processes of democratization or socialization. Man—not God—now defines “truth” and “goodness.” The universe is reduced to impersonal processes.
Henry described naturalism’s new presuppositions under four headings, explaining how each reflects a shift from God-centered to man-centered thinking. The modern university, he said, assumes the comprehensive contingency of everything, including God; the total temporality of all things; the radical relativity of all human thought and life; and the absolute autonomy of man.
Not all educators hold these premises, Henry acknowledged, and some who do might be unaware of them. Still the assumptions permeate university thought to such an extent that students generally believe true modernity depends on rejecting revealed and absolute truth and asserting “creative selfhood” in its place.
Naturalism attracts students by promising to meet their needs for personal worth, security, and survival. But its promises are all false, Henry said, because naturalism lacks any solid basis for either man’s permanence or his universal worth. Henry agreed that humanism also offers a total social agenda, but charged that it builds on ideas borrowed from the theism it denies.
Because the naturalist also receives God’s natural revelation in creation, and because he is made in God’s image, he makes daily choices and value judgments inconsistent with humanistic fundamentals. Naturalism is therefore thinkable, Henry concluded, but not livable. As a result, even nonevangelicals within the intellectual system are asking basic questions today for which their philosophy gives no answers.
Henry urged evangelicals to stand together on undisputed biblical truth affecting a neopagan culture, and to avoid fragmenting over side issues in the face of united opposition. For example, they should insist on the value of human life, and unite in affirming creation.
White House Figure To Run Lay Training Center In North Carolina
Columbia Bible College (South Carolina) has hired Harry Dent, a former White House adviser in the Nixon administration, to be director of a Christian lay training center to be built on 1,500 acres of mountain land near Asheville, North Carolina. The land was donated by Billy Graham.
Dent, 52, will begin developing the center upon his graduation from Columbia’s graduate school next month. He gave up his law practice last fall for a year of study, intending to go into some aspect of Christian ministry.
Dent was working for Nixon in the White House during the Watergate affair. He said in an interview with the Washington Post that what saved him from “the inner sanctum” of Watergate was his “Boy Scoutish image” as a devout Southern Baptist. Because he resisted requests made of him by H. R. Haldeman, a key White House job he might have gotten went instead to Jeb Magruder.
Columbia president J. Robertson McQuilkin said a board approached “only Harry Dent for the training center role, although others were considered. We are pleased he has accepted the challenge.”
It is an ambitious challenge. McQuilkin hopes to develop “one of the largest and most versatile Christian retreats and training centers in the United States.” Lay evangelism and service will be the focus of short-term training sessions and conference ministries. Dent said, “The most effective communication of the gospel comes from lay people witnessing to lay people.”
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association donated the land last year.
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