When the Apostle Peter proclaimed his unwavering loyalty to Jesus, Christ admonished him with the words, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He knew that, at that time, Peter didn’t have the guts to follow through on his promise. Today, when it comes to politics, evangelicals are in the same boat, lacking the will to break from their beloved Republican Party.
The recent pulpit-based protests of 33 evangelical ministers who decried voter support for Senator Barack Obama as a national moral failure is, sadly, just another example of this weakness. The apparently coordinated effort didn’t so much encourage support for Senator John McCain as it did attempt to dissuade congregants from voting Obama, thus adhering to the letter – but not the spirit – of the law prohibiting tax-exempt religious organizations from making political endorsements.
The justification for the overtly political sermons was that the ministers’ exercise of their First Amendment right of free speech trumps whatever provisions may be found in the byzantine tax code. The pastors involved are spoiling for a fight and have all but dared the Internal Revenue Service to pick up the gantlet they have thrown to the ground in challenge.
I’m not siding with The Man in this case – I’m the Libertarian here. But I do think the 33 pastors and their legal support network, the Alliance Defense Fund, should consider the potential implications if their challenge if successful. A further blurring of the line between politics and religion can only weaken the faithful witness of all churches, and especially that of the evangelical church in America.
Let’s face it, few people take evangelicals seriously anymore. We’re viewed as grumpy, narrow-minded crackpots who believe in ancient fairy tales (more on that when I examine Religulous next week). When evangelicals make the news, as with this protest preaching, we play into the prevailing stereotype.
Worse, with each of these events, we make ourselves more and more irrelevant to those who most need to hear our message of hope in these troubled and difficult times.
It’s not as though the party’s faithful are lacking in influence. During the Republican primaries, evangelicals, after all, were largely responsible for the surprising and unexpected performance of Governor Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Baptist minister.
But that power is often squandered by those who would curry favor in hopes of what seems like personal political gain or enhanced standing with a party that, when it push comes to shove, cares little for the evanelical agenda. On more than one occasion during this election cycle Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family regurgitated a perennial threat to lead an evangelical revolt against the Republican Party should the GOP nominate a candidate not to his liking. When John McCain’s nomination became an inevitability Dobson again issued the challenge, but found himself summoned to the border in his political duel. Demonstrating the cravenness of his protestations, he backed off rather than strengthen Obama’s position.
If the political arm of the religious right truly wanted to send a message to Washington, it should have followed through on Dobson’s threat and taken its millions of conservative voters into a new party. It could be argued that doing so would set politics on its ear, eviscerating a GOP that has abandoned its small government roots in favor of its own brand of big government socialism.
A defection by the evangelicals would almost certainly embolden other voter blocs to, at the very least, demand more responsiveness from their elected representatives. Members of a weakened GOP might be compelled to find homes with the Libertarian Party or Constitution Party, for example, and might force the mainstream media to (finally) give deserved respect to alternative parties.
Instead, Dobson’s empty threat only proved what most already believe to be true: that evangelical voters are Republican Party stooges; willing patsies of political operatives like Karl Rove who have little regard for the beliefs of the evangelical movement. These cynics – or are they realists? – know that by uttering a few choice code words or nominating a suitable running mate, the party’s evangelical members can be relied on to fall in line come November.