Mark Twain once said, "It ain't what you know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." The great American novelist would have gotten a kick out of a recent blog post by Family Research Council's (FRC) Chris Marlink.
The post attempted to critique a USA Today column, "Evangelicals Seek Positive Change," in which I was quoted as saying:
Americans are tired of the incivility and the partisan divisiveness on both sides. Regardless of how much longer the culture wars are going to continue, Christians need to transcend the polemical, partisan, power-hungry battles that stymie the common good... Christians cannot join the ranks of the politically apathetic. But we aren't forced to choose a human-formed party with a systematized divide-and-conquer agenda, either. We can stand in the gap and claim loyalty only to Jesus.
Marlink doesn't disagree with my comments outright. But he does argue that the culture war mindset, which sees partisan politics as a near-Christian duty and political engagement as a primary way of living out one's faith, is a myth.
For this assertion, he draws from Andrew Walker at Mere Orthodoxy:
I would like to know with some degree of specificity who it is that serves as Mr. Merritt's foil in the culture war. What pastors are advocating Republican politics? What churches are adopting policies and positions that mirror the Republican Party or the Heritage Foundation?
FRC's Marlink conlcudes, "In the end, I think what Merritt and other emerging voices are rejecting is a stereotype that no longer exists -- if in fact it ever did."
First, I want to say that both Walker and Marlink are intelligent and competent individuals. I agree with many statements they make in other posts elsewhere. In fact, their intelligence and competence are precisely why I find these assertions so confusing. To argue that there has not been and is not an active contingency of Christians in America who have conflated their faith with partisan politics seems somewhat disingenuous.
I'm not an out-of-touch leftist journalist who can be brushed aside because "he just doesn't understand Christians." I remain a passionate follower of Jesus who wants the American church to flourish in this century. Raised in the home of a prominent Southern Baptist minister and still conservative on most issues, I've seen the effects of the culture wars on the American church with my own eyes. Like the Delphic oracle, I know whereof I speak.
I've been in churches where slanted voter guides are passed out, cherry-picking issues that stack the deck for a particular party's candidates. I've sat in pews while pastors recognize candidates in attendance or even allow them to speak from their pulpits. I attended Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church for several years where an IRS-be-damned mentality lead to the blatant endorsement of candidates between refrains of "Amazing Grace" and "Just As I Am."
Unfortunately, this culture warring and partisan mentality still exists among a sizable (but shrinking) number of American Christians. One only needs to Google "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" (PFS) to recognize it. PFS is an effort to thumb one's nose at the IRS restrictions on a church's direct political involvement. In September 2008, a church not far from me participated. The pastor endorsed Senator John McCain from his pulpit as "the Christian candidate who holds a more Biblical worldview." One year later, the pastor resigned his post to run for Congress.
The Rev. Wiley Drake of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., also participated in PFS that year and defended his decision: "According to my Bible and in my opinion, there is no way in the world a Christian can vote for Barack Hussein Obama. Mr. Obama is not standing up for anything that is tradition in America."
This should be enough "specificity" for Andrew and Walker, but for a more recent example I'd point them to my March 6 column in the Christian Science Monitor ("Churches that embrace Santorum, Gingrich drive youth away"). I opened with a story of a church in Cumming, Ga., that invited both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich into its pulpit. These men gave passion pleas with the language of faith, in one case with a robed choir sitting behind nodding at every point. The church's pastor edited The American Patriot's Bible (Thomas Nelson) and authored The Coming Revolution: Signs from America's Past that Signal Our Nation's Future (Thomas Nelson).
Or perhaps you might reference the FRC's own Values Voters Bus Tour in which GOP presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum toured several swing states registering voters. How does that align with Marlink's statement that "FRC president Tony Perkins has reiterated his conviction time and again that Christians should vote their values and not the party line"? Let's be honest here. Does anyone believe an effort like this one isn't an attempt to register those who will almost certainly vote Republican?
The subtle inference in each of these cases is that God has a stake in this election, and we know which party he's registered with.
Yet we must be clear that this isn't a problem afflicting only the religious right. That's why my new book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, seeks to expose the struggle with this on both sides of the Christian aisle. The religious left is equally complicit even if the mainstream media largely ignores their partisanship.
A 2010 study conducted by the Paul B. Henry Institute showed that while 44 percent of evangelical pastors said they publicly supported a political candidate in the last election, 40 percent of mostly liberal mainline protestant pastors said the same. Progressive Christian author Donald Miller shamelessly campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008, and Jim Wallis gave the Democratic weekly radio address after the 2006 midterm elections. They certainly have the right to engage in such things as private citizens, but as Christian leaders, must also recognize the implications of their actions.
As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell illustrate in their book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, conservative Christians are often blamed for the conflation of religion and politics, but survey statistics show liberal congregations are the most politicized.
Like the Church of England in the 1800s that was frequently referred to as "the Tory party at prayer," the church in America is often reduced to the Republican or Democratic party at prayer. Anyone who pretends that American Christians have not grown intoxicated with the promises of power offered by partisan politics must suffer from amnesia of the past and denial of the present.
As conservative columnist Michael Gerson has pointed out, evangelicals are in a moment of "head-snapping" change in which their wholesale participation in the culture wars is being re-evaluated. In years past, the American church has been swept up in divisive and uncivil rhetoric, power politics, and blatant partisanship that harms both our image and influence. In many cases, the Bride of Christ has been reduced to little more than a voting bloc. Asserting that culture warring Christianity is a fictitious stereotype may provide culture warriors themselves a better night's sleep. But in Twain's words, it "just ain't so."
Jonathan Merritt (@jonathanmerritt) is author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars. He's published more than 300 articles in outlets such as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and CNN.com.