When mega-church pastor Rick Warren invited Senator Hillary Clinton to his AIDS conference at Saddleback Church, some Christians applauded - others branded him a liberal traitor. So goes the long-running debate on what constitutes a "proper" Evangelical public policy. As "salt and light" what role does political engagement play in our efforts to influence culture?
That is a question I have been mulling lately. Raised from the "cradle" by the "Religious Right," my views on societal transformation were initially shaped by close affiliation with the Republican Party, as well as petitions and protests against abortion and gay rights. In Bible college, I stood along Lancaster Drive in Salem, Oregon, with hundreds of other protesters holding signs that read "Abortion Kills." While I have since departed from many of my ultra-conservative roots, I still face daily decisions about how I, as a Christian, will respond to cultural concerns.
The Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and conservative organizations like Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America have encouraged Christians to engage in politics in hopes of restoring biblical values in our country. But, after 30 years of religious Right activism, are we seeing societal transformation? In Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, John C. Green states, ". . . the Christian Right has achieved very few of its policy goals . . . most of the Christian Right's agenda remains largely unfulfilled" (p. 28).
Concern about public policy is one reason over 70 prominent leaders, including the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, signed the "Evangelical Manifesto" on May 7, 2008. Among other things, this document urges Christians to repudiate a "religious Right" or a "religious Left," claiming such politicization corrupts the gospel and makes us "'useful idiots' for one political party or another." The Manifesto calls for "an expansion of our concern beyond single issue politics, such as abortion and marriage" and "If we protest, our protest has to begin with ourselves."
The "Evangelical Manifesto" raises an important concern: The strategies of the religious Right have resulted in a severe backlash, leaving many educated citizens and, especially, young people with a negative impression of Christianity. Research from The Barna Group published in UnChristian highlights alarming statistics. Close to half of young Christians and nearly two thirds of young non-Christians believe "the political efforts of conservative Christians to be a problem facing America" (p. 155). These leaders of the future perceive Christians as judgmental and "primarily motivated by a political agenda." Rather than transforming the next generation, conservative political efforts seem to be having the opposite effect.
So what is the solution? Do we avoid politics entirely? Not according to Os Guinness, one of the primary drafters of the Manifesto. He decries privatization of faith as equally problematic.
After all, it was not a private faith that led William Wilberforce to devote a career to public policy, instigating such important societal changes as the abolition of slavery in Britain. The challenge, then, is in knowing when, how and for what do we take action. This is where the Manifesto leaves us hanging. As conservative Al Mohler comments, "What the document never makes clear is how to hold to deep moral and political convictions, based on biblical principles, without running the danger of identification with a political agenda - at least to some extent."
Yet, is it not possible to hold to deep moral convictions and work toward societal change without selling our soul to a particular party or toting protest signs? The religious Right wrongly equates "Christian" with "Republican." It also errs in its willingness to sacrifice the heart of the outcast in its zeal for righteousness. By the same token, the religious Left can be just as partisan, and errs by compromising on important moral issues. To maintain our "saltiness" we must forge a public policy that implements, on a practical level, both grace and truth. This requires cooperation and dialogue among the diverse segments of the Church.
As women leaders, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines in this integral discussion. Of the 74 charter signatories of the "Evangelical Manifesto," only 7 were women. It is time to speak up. What do you think about the Christian role in public policy? How would you promote societal transformation?