On his Daily Show one evening, Jon Stewart compared the importance of his home region in presidential elections with that of his guest, Newt Gingrich. "I'm from the Northeast," he said. "We used to be important."
Let me play Stewart to Christianity Today's Gingrich: "I'm a mainline Protestant. We used to be important." Though we Methodists boasted allegiance from three of the four members of the ballot in 2004's presidential election, this seems to have been more a cultural accretion than anything else. The one whose faith matteredPresident Bushhas made a career out of his fluency in speaking evangelicals' language. The Republican Party has courted evangelicals long enough and well enough to have almost an insurmountable majority in Congress and, soon, in the Supreme Court as well. Congratulations, evangelicals: You're in charge.
We mainliners had our day in the sun. Remember Prohibition? It was more than an opportunity for cool gangster outfits and Kevin Costner's best movie. The national banning of alcohol by constitutional amendment was a result of Methodist efforts to "spread Scriptural holiness over the land." Oddly familiar, isn't it? Groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, led by the great Methodist social prophet Frances Willard, prayed, raised money, and badgered politicians to get their way. The Temperance Union was the forerunner of the cute old ladies of the United Methodist Women (UMW) who, in a church I pastored, often gathered to bake and gossip and pray.
We did then what you do now: We imposed our way on a divided populace by sheer force of electoral muscle and religious rhetoric. Our effort to take America for Christ is now a peculiar cultural artifact, a curiosity gathering dust on the shelf of early 20th-century history. We built triumphant monuments to our importance. At the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., a prime, front-pew seat features a plaque marking where the President of the United States should sit when he attendsnot unlike churches in Constantinople that once featured imperial boxes for the emperor to ride his chariot into without having to dismount. But Caesar's seat goes empty these days, even with a Methodist President.
This is not to denigrate monuments from a more triumphant age of mainline Protestantismmany such places still do fine ministry. But church influence on politics is fickle. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," our Lord says. The last people in the world who want to be caught dead pledging allegiance to the wrong Lord ought to be evangelicals.
I expect you'll amen this general warning, but let the preacher step on a few toes. I understand why you support the war on terror, for instanceto defeat evildoers, to spread democracy. But remember that a just war in the Christian tradition, according to many theologians, requires penance by its wagersnot celebration. Christians ought to be the most eager repenters around.
I know you are used to being a persecuted minority, but isn't it time to drop the inferiority complex, rule graciously, and love your enemies, even if they are liberal? I know politics makes strange bedfellows, but do you really want to be allied with foul-mouthed know-it-alls on AM radio or with politicians who don't care a lick about Jesus?
C. S. Lewis's Screwtape advised his nephew Wormwood: "Once you have made the world an end and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours." We mainliners were once offered the deal you have nowsocial action in exchange for faithfulnessand we bit hard. We're so far out of political power now that we're remembering the first task of the church is to be the church, not to play chaplain to a political party or nation. It's tempting to trade fidelity for influence, but it's hard to get fidelity back, and influence doesn't satisfy.
These dire warnings aside, enjoy your time at the top. "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever," Scripture says. Political power is a good deal more transient than the things we both hold most dear. When the powers that be are done with you, we mainline liberals will have a rocking chair for you at the retirement home of the formerly religiously important. Maybe then we can finally see each other as sisters and brothers.
Jason Byassee is assistant editor for The Christian Century and holds a Ph.D. in theology from Duke University.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Jason Byassee is a contributor to our sister publication Books & Culture. His essays include:
Reverse Hagiography | A new biography of Saint Augustine. (September/October 2005)
Jedi or Jesuit? | Looking for God at the cineplex. (May/June 2005)
Martin Marty commented on this article in his online Sightings column.
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