11/02/2012 11:47 am ET Updated Jan 02, 2013

A Vote for Historic Christianity at Election Time

It was perhaps inevitable that as the final weekend of the election campaign loomed, appeals on the basis of religion would intensify. On the very day I write this article I can report receiving an open appeal to join a Christian leaders' letter endorsing Barack Obama for re-election. Meanwhile, I have received or learned of numerous appeals to endorse Mitt Romney openly, or to support "candidates" who share "Christian values" on the three most important issues in the election, which happen to be abortion, gay marriage and a particular understanding of religious liberty.

I am a Christian ethicist. My work takes me into the public square on a regular basis. I have edited three books on faith and American politics, most recently "A New Evangelical Manifesto" (Chalice, 2012). One would think I would join the parade toward either Democrat-Christianity or Republican-Christianity and just be done with it. It would be so much simpler. All I would need to do would be to go ahead and join seemingly everyone else in collapsing the distinction between the Christian faith and its moral values, on the one hand, and the agenda of one of the major American political parties, on the other.

In my 2008 book, "The Future of Faith in American Politics" (Baylor Univ. Press), I dealt with this issue mainly by saying that no single political party holds a monopoly on Christian values. Positioning myself as an independent-minded centrist, I argued that the best Christian approach to American politics is something like a both/and evangelical centrism that takes the best concerns of the right and puts them together with the best concerns of the left insofar as both reflect biblical principles. Thus Christians should care about both abortion and the environment, both marriage and poverty, both euthanasia and war, and so on. This is an old, familiar trope in center-left Christian public engagement. I Iearned it at least 25 years ago.

It is not bad, as far as it goes. One could do worse for a values agenda in American politics. But it does not do anything to address what I am beginning to think of as the most important issue, from a Christian perspective. That issue is the erosion of historically recognizable Christian identity in American religious life, and a concomitant erosion of the distinctive mission of the church and the particular role of the Christian minister.

Sidney Mead said long ago that America was a nation with the soul of a church. It has also been true that the American Christian Church is a church with the soul of a nation. Perhaps because of the long informal establishment of (Protestant) Christianity as America's culture-religion, long ago the American Church became confused about what exactly it means to be the Church. We don't know what the Church is, or what it is to do, or what its ministers do that might be different from what other people do.

I have made a turn in recent years toward a deeper immersion in historic Christianity. For a new Christian prayer book edited with my wife -- "Yours is the Day, Lord, Yours is the Night" (Thomas Nelson) -- we collected more than 700 great morning and evening prayers from every era and nearly every communion in the great international Christian family. So the Te Deum mingles with John Wesley and the Orthodox liturgy with the prayers of Augustine. Immersing in 20 centuries and seven continents of Christian prayer has retrained my ear for what it means to be Christian, what the historic Church has yearned for, prayed about and sought to achieve. It has also shown me how Christian leaders of old addressed God, their congregants and the world.

Thinking and praying with the ecumenical, global Church in this way makes it seem unthinkably vulgar for men and women of the cloth to use their sacred offices to endorse or quasi-endorse candidates for public office in our particular nation. Such endorsements stand at odds with the historic Gospel ministry of the Christian Church, with the care of souls in a politically divided nation, and with the recognition in Christian tradition that no earthly political party or agenda can represent the agenda of God for a redeemed world.

I will vote, certainly. I have my own opinions as to which of the available candidates might do a better job in addressing severe governance challenges in our nation for the next stage of its history. But I do not confuse the significance of my vote, or the outcome of the election, with the mission of Christ's Church in the world. And I hope to devote the rest of my career to helping the Christian Church recover its identity by connecting with its historic traditions and convictions, and by taking a much more measured approach to political engagement. I vote for historic Christianity at election time this year.

David P. Gushee is distinguished university professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.