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Converting Evangelicals into Christians Would Benefit US Foreign Policy

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LOS ANGELES -- Conservative politicians in California and across the country are taking strident foreign policy positions in order to jockey for the American evangelical vote, which, as fellow HuffPost blogger Richard T. Hughes has noted, tends to be more pro-war than any other demographic.

As a lapsed evangelical, I have for several years marveled at how able such persons of faith can champion the "sizzle" of their faith while eschewing the actual meat of it. But American foreign policy will suffer as long as evangelicals misunderstand and misrepresent their own core views about human nature.

I'd shocked my traditional Pakistani, Muslim family by joining the Christian church twenty year ago, because I loved the distinctly upside-down, turn-other-cheek, love-your-enemy illogic of the Sermon on the Mount. Many have derided the peculiar New Testament notion of original sin, but they miss the genius behind it. The notion of original sin, and the accompanying notion of universal depravity, made it impossible for one person or one country to claim inherent superiority over another, or even to claim independence or innocence from the guilt of others -- within a fallen world, all people and institutions were inextricably linked in terms of our negative effects on one another, and all needed "grace" equally.

September 11, 2001 offered evangelicals an opportunity to demonstrate this in the clutch. To nervous and angry fellow citizens, they could show how blessedness didn't come from breaking the world into "us vs the bad guys"; not from punching enemies, but from bearing their pain; and not through wars or through citizenship in powerful empires, but only through faith in something greater.

Instead, the restless flocks coalesced around hammer-wielding worldviews that were less founded on the distinct message of the New Testament and more on classical notions of good crushing evil (in other words, Western Christian civilization crushing Muslims and all other pagans). And church and theological authorities were silent, with too few exceptions.

Many evangelicals told me that I didn't appreciate the tension they see between the distinctives of their faith and their obligations to their state within a democratic society. Jesus may tell the members of his church to love their enemies, they say, but wouldn't it be irresponsible for a government to go easy on its enemies?

I'd respond with my own questions: Given the tension between what his church must do and what a secular government must do, why do you so quickly side with the government, and against the distinctive call of the Lord that you claim everyone must serve? Why do you agree so passionately with talk-radio figures who mock restraint against enemies, when your own Lord implores you to pray for enemies and to suffer their blows? Why do you see every American soldier as a Christ figure, even though you claim not to trust the "Big Government" that sends these boys to fight on its behalf?

And even if you feel the government must wield the sword, why do you spend so little time appreciating how Jesus argued for an otherworldly solution to the follies of perpetual vengeance?

Writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan coined the term "Christianists" to knock such evangelicals a few pegs down to the level of the "Islamists" they loathe. Sullivan's use of the term has merit, but I see them less as Christianists than as Americanists. They do seem to love the flag first, and Jesus is then recruited to wave that flag. In either case, this conflation of spirit and sword isn't good for Christianity and it isn't good for America.

Wise pastors and mentors confessed to me they were uncomfortable with the flag-waving civil religion that displaced the way of Jesus with the way of the Soldier. But they seemed preoccupied with church building funds and in easier battles--like fighting the ordination of gays or demanding theological purity tests regarding doctrines of salvation.

When I saw how divorced American evangelicals were, in the clutch, from their most distinctive beliefs about worldly conflict, I lost my appetite for organized religion or traditional dogma. I could understand and forgive the Church's failings, but it changed the stakes for me.

There was no need anymore to cling to "the narrow path," no need to keep maintaining, in the face of so many Biblical contradictions and theological conundrums, that the Church had all the divine answers that had evaded Muhammad and the Buddha and Lao Tzu.

I soon stopped fighting theological battles against my Muslim family (which had been far truer to a Sermon on the Mount ethic than many of my church brethren), and gave up on the cacophony of organized religion. And for the sake of my conscience and my family, I began a second career in which I fought myths about how one organized religion is good while another is evil, discussed in far greater detail here.

That "cosmic war" notion, driven today by neoconservatives and evangelicals, represents a dangerously idealistic influence on US foreign policy that makes one yearn for the realpolitik days of Kissinger.

Some former fellow travelers say I'm misrepresenting how Christian faith is expected to work, and that no one is expected to follow Jesus perfectly. Still, if they claim to follow the "narrow path" that evangelicalism seeks to represent, they may want to stand up more boldly for what is singular within their faith tradition, instead of standing up for what they believe is singular about their nation and flag. It will take courage; but if they can make this most difficult of conversion, they can make a contribution to our broken and angry world.