Saturday, November 10, 2007

Outflanked?

As I mentioned earlier, I’m spending a few days in Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi. We arrived on Monday, just in time to see some campaign ads for the second most interesting electoral race in the nation this past Tuesday. (Of course, the most interesting was my dad’s mayoral race in the burgeoning metropolis of Columbus Grove, Ohio.) The odd thing about Mississippi’s gubernatorial race was that the incumbent Republican, Haley Barbour, was challenged by a divorced, ambulance-chasing lawyer Democrat who was running to the right of Barbour. The Democrat even held his Bible and trumpeted his faith in his TV commercials. (And then he got trounced.)

I couldn’t help but think of some parallels to some of my own experiences over the past five years or so. My sense is that independent Baptists who think of themselves as fundamentalists assume that they are more conservative, more discerning, and certainly more biblically faithful than their Southern Baptist brethren. I think this is true on some points. I think the two groups are strikingly indistinguishable on many others. But on several points, it seems clear to me that some (many?) SBC folk are staking out ground that is clearly to the right of some (many?) IFBs.

Several examples come to mind. At Southeastern Seminary I was taught a much more restrictive position on remarriage after “exception clause” related divorce than the IFB church of which I was a member at the time. Seminary professors raised serious questions about the abortifacient nature of prescription contraceptives, which was quite the opposite of my experience in IFB circles. Most significantly, church discipline at Southeastern was not merely a biblical truth, but a biblical priority. Professors were not only teaching, but emphasizing—even indoctrinating—the application of biblical imperatives that I did not experience first-hand in the IFB world until two or three years later. My presumption is that men who had experienced the battles for the Bible in the SBC in the 80s and 90s knew experientially how essential is regenerate church membership to the health and faithfulness of local churches and broader partnerships between churches. I could go on. (And of course we all know that means the other illustrations I had in mind have slipped out of my brain at this moment.)

Let me be quite clear. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that because one position is perceived to be more conservative that it must be the correct position. Surely that is often false. Of the above examples, my personal convictions are neither monolithically with the more or the less conservative positions.

Now, I left out one other example, because it’s the one I really want to talk about. Anybody heard who SBC President Frank Page is endorsing for the 2008 presidential race? How about Al Mohler, the guy with the daily radio program that discusses the political scene all the time? Or surely there’s something definitive out there from SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, right? After all, he's the SBC voice in Washington.

Are those crickets that I hear chirping?

Of course, that could all change in a moment. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if Land in particular wound up offering some sort of thinly-veiled endorsement. And of course, I wouldn't suggest that IFBs and SBCs are monolithic. I'd be as stunned to hear Dave Doran or Mark Minnick endorse a candidate as I was disgusted to watch an SBC pastors employ all his rhetorical tricks on behalf of Ron Paul at a straw poll. But isn’t the silence of key SBC leaders even to this point downright striking given the fact that a former SBC pastor has an outside (but not unrealistic) shot at winning the Republican nomination? Huckabee may be no classical conservative, but he’s a fair bit more interested in traditional values than Al Gore and Bill Clinton, the past two nominees of a major party with SBC ties.

Now, I don’t know how to get around what I’m about to say any more than I know how to explain it. I suspect we all know by now that Bob Jones University has once again been thrust into the news, not because of a theological conviction or some offense caused by the gospel, but because of politics. And this time, certainly much more so than in 2000, the thrust has been deliberate. I don't think it would be at all unfair to call it strategic and calculated. So while the most prominent SBC leaders have been withdrawn even when the interests of one of their own are at stake, BJU officials have not only supported but encouraged others to support a rich Mormon with a mixed record on social issues.

The latest news is that BJU officials organized and* hosted an invitation-only event in which Romney spoke to a crowd largely comprised of BJU personnel and alumni, one of whom recorded the event and passed that on to CNN. Read the story and hear the audio. This seems to have been the same event Rick Phillips recently blogged about at Reformation 21. And just for clarity's sake, I'm neither endorsing Romney nor in any way personally opposed to his nomination.

Just color me puzzled.

I recognize that there is a rich history of relationships between religious leaders and government. But when I think of people who represent that marriage, I’m thinking about Constantine, various popes and Holy Roman Emperors, Henry VIII, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Kuyper. Now, a couple of those guys are surely spoken of positively on the campus of BJU (at least on occasion in some classrooms and no doubt frequently in some dorm rooms), but when I think of the Methodist-turned-mostly-baptistic background of the BJU presidents, I’m not associating them too much with the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Reformed traditions. Certainly not with their view of the relationship between church and state. (Granted, BJU probably doesn’t think of itself as a “church.” The thing students, faculty, and staff are required to attend on Sunday mornings goes by a different name.)

That doesn’t mean I think that a Christian leader endorsing a presidential candidate—even a Mormon candidate—is clearly incompatible with biblical Christianity. I am unaware of a biblical mandate or even an irrefutable principle that would prohibit such actions. I wouldn’t suggest that Bob Jones III or Bob Taylor (or Wayne Grudem or Justin Taylor) are in sin.

I would suggest that using credibility gained through one's preaching ministry to advance a political candidate is an unwise choice—a choice that’s particularly unhelpful to the gospel message.

A friend e-mailed me recently to ask about the "interesting ideas” about Christians and politics I was rumored to hold. Here’s how I responded:
I like Christians working in government. I don't much like churches working in government. I think there are two problems with churches getting involved in politics: First, it makes the world think that Christian churches are more interested in political power than the gospel. Second, it makes Christians think that we can transform culture through politics rather than the message of the gospel.

So politics is a good and noble profession for a Christian to pursue, and we need Christians in government and politics to be salt and light in those places. Their presence reflects God's character and common grace to all society when they make good laws and advance the cause of justice, and it gives them opportunities to speak and live the gospel in front of non-Christians, just like in any other professions. But many Christians have concluded that we can transform society and culture by making good laws. I believe the Bible teaches that the only way to transform culture is by changing people's hearts through the power of the gospel. Any efforts by churches to accomplish that transformation through an ineffective means can only distract us from our central mission of the gospel.

That doesn't mean I think churches and pastors should have no voice on particular social and moral issues. I do think churches should speak out on abortion and marriage and other issues. But I'm not sure the way to do that is to lobby government officials, organize political rallies, or support candidates.
At the end of the day, the question I'm left asking myself is, "What is it that is so compelling about a political campaign that would lead Christian leaders to attract attention to their presumably gospel-oriented institution over matters of politics?" An uncharitable response would be to imply that such decisions are driven by a lust for power. I simply don't think that's true at all.

Perhaps I'm not thinking of possible explanations, but what I fear is most likely is a foundational misunderstanding of the relationship between cultural transformation, the power of the gospel, and the divine initiation of the regeneration of the human heart. I think we're seeing the application of a presupposition that using spiritual influence in political endeavors will bear desirable fruit in our culture. I fear that this presupposition betrays a distorted understanding of the gospel, in which moral laws and national leaders create an atmosphere that is conducive to the advance of the gospel message and the kingdom of God.

Put simply, the clear implication of this presupposition is that moral, unregenerate people can increase the likelihood that individuals in our culture will receive the message of the gospel.

The trouble is, this belief is antithetical to the biblical gospel. The biblical message of the gospel is that God makes the deaf hear, the blind see, and the dead breathe life. No President, whether Mormon or Fundamental Baptist, can advance God's kingdom in the hearts of men through political means. No President, whether nominal Christian or atheist, can hinder the advance of God's kingdom.

I'll close with a revealing anecdote from this article on SBC President Frank Page's conversations with the 2008 candidates:
"When I spent two solid hours in a private meeting with Rudy Giuliani, I shared Christ with him so much that at the end of that two hours I said, 'Rudy, I'm not going to leave this place unless I give you an opportunity to pray with me to receive Jesus as your savior. Would you do that with me Rudy?'" Page recounted.

"He said, 'No, Frank, I'm not ready to do that. My daddy knows Jesus like that, but I'm not ready for that.'"
That is precisely the kind of clarity preachers of the gospel ought to introduce to men's hearts. Is there a compelling reason why Christian leaders can't stick to that simple message of new life in Christ through faith in Him, and stop creating gospel-killing confusion about whether our interests are grounded in this world or the next?

*[edit: This particular point has been contested in the comments and backed up with enough detail that I am not able to say confidently that my original interpretation of the published news reports is correct.]

9 comments:

Paul said...

This has got to be your longest post ever! But well worth it. Really good thoughts, thanks.

carpediem365 said...

This is just dead on, Ben. I have two political operatives in our congregation. Both have significant roles in the Ohio Republican Party. They will tell you the greatest thorn in their side is conservative Christians that do not understand the proper roles of church and citizen in the political process. They also both enjoy the fact that we keep politics out of the pulpit. Way out.

Dawn said...

Excellent post, Ben. Thanks.

Michael C. said...

The latest news is that BJU officials organized and hosted an invitation-only event in which Romney spoke to a crowd largely comprised of BJU personnel and alumni, one of whom recorded the event and passed that on to CNN.

I was at the lunch as well. It wasn't organized by BJU officials. The Romney campaign organized the event as an outreach to the BJU community--I assume because they know an on-campus event won't happen, but they can't afford to ignore BJU voters. In my opinion--and the CNN story backs this up--Romney didn't say anything incriminating in the
"closed-door meeting." It was just his typical stump speech. His comments on religion were what his campaign staff (and BJ3) would hope he would say. In essence: Dr. Bob says my religion is wrong, but we are able to agree on political goals.

I share your caution on the blurring of political/ecclesiastical lines. I constantly struggle with what the proper relationship should look like, though. I think other people do too. Cal Thomas wrote a book-length critique of the religious right and its philosophical underpinnings, yet sometimes he seems guilty of doing the things he criticizes.

FWIW You imply that Mohler is more withdrawn than fundamentalists. While he's not endorsed a candidate, I think of him as quite politically engaged.

Ben said...

Michael,

Thanks for the background information. Do you know where the invitation list came from? If, as reports indicate, BJU faculty, students, and alumni received invitations, I think that points to participation in the organization. I'd gladly retract that word if it's untrue. As it is, I'll edit the post at that point to direct folks to your caveat.

I think Cal Thomas is not inconsistent or hypocritical because he is not a religious leader, but a political commentator.

I never said Mohler is not politically engaged. In fact, I acknowledged it. He talks about policy issues and political prognostication all the time. But whether or not I think his level of engagement is helpful, there is a world of difference between what he does and backing a political party or a particular candidate.

Ben said...

Thanks for the encouragement, everybody.

carpediem365,

Are their names John and Jason, by any chance?

Michael C. said...

I don't think there was a guest list. There is a BJ grad in the Romney campaign who is coordinating some of the SC events (don't know his official title). He sent an email to folks at BJ, and they forwarded it to people who would be interested. There were quite a few people from local churches and ministries who came as well. A copy of the invitation email from the Romney campaign was sent to CNN with the bootleg recording.

There was a similar BJ-geared event for Fred Thompson the next day. Neither event was mentioned in the BJ email announcements. I was invited by a poli sci person.

On Cal Thomas, I was not referring to his political involvement but the philosophy implicit in some of the things he says about politics. It's not really intended as a criticism. I don't think he's hypocritical; I think he probably struggles with how to act consistently in this area as I do.

My comment on Mohler was referring not just to this post but also to your post of October 8. After noting that Mohler had not endorsed anyone you asked, "Could this mean mainline fundamentalists are more politically engaged than conservative evangelicals?" Personally I don't know that there's a world of difference between what Mohler does and other politically involved evangelicals and fundamentalists. I just think what he does is a little cleaner because he hasn't endorsed any candidates, meaning he can distance himself from them if/when they eventually fail.

In all the back-and-forth I don't want to lose the fact that I think we are pretty close on this, Ben. I just don't see the contrasts as quite as stark as you do.

Ben said...

Michael,

Thanks for the further clarification. I will edit the original post to reflect your background.

On Mohler, I think there's a significant, qualitative difference between endorsing candidates and discussing issues. Endorsing candidates seems to smack of a desire for status and influence over the power elites that simply evaluating public issues in light of Scripture does not.

Ben said...

Michael,

I meant to include affirmation of our agreement. I do not understand you in any way to be disagreeing with the main point of this post.