Religious Politics as Spectacle


In our last episode of religion and politics on the campaign trail we left Sen. John McCain rejecting the endorsement of John Hagee. McCain found out that Hagee thought the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves, because they would not leave Europe and move to Israel.

This past week the saga continues as we learn that Sen. Barak Obama has quit his church, Trinity Church of Christ in Chicago. The final blow was a visiting preacher, Roman Catholic priest Michael Pfleger, who spent a good portion of a recent sermon mocking Sen. Hillary Clinton.

This comic soap opera, replayed weekly in both liberal and conservative churches, is what happens when communities of faith forget who they are and why they exist in the first place. It is the logical outcome of substituting party loyalty for God. Sadly, the worship hour for many churches stopped being about God a long time ago. It is all about the politics.

Not that faith should be shut out of public life. I believe that communities of faith have a vital role to play in the political process. We have a responsibility and an obligation as people of faith to vote. Beyond that, it is in our spiritual DNA to champion issues regarding social justice. And what a waste of spirit if we fail to use our influence to make campaigns civil and substantive.

But what we cannot do is take sides. When the faith community takes sides the lofty character of faith is reduced to the smarmy spectacle of politics. Enter Revs. Pfleger, Parsely, Hagee, et al.

A friend of mine was a Methodist pastor during the Vietnam War era. For years he used every service of worship as an opportunity to preach against the war. He was able to take any passage in the Bible and turn it into an anti-war sermon.

When the war finally ended, my friend confesses, he didn't know what to preach anymore.

In a sense that is what has happened to many communities of faith. They have been so immersed in politics that they do not even notice the absence of the sacred when they gather for worship. The politics stirs their emotions, and there is passion. But as the political season ebbs and flows, so does their spiritual vitality. If there is not a campaign going on, or some referendum, these politically charged congregations hardly know what to pray for.

What is truly sad about all this is the loss of genuine power and influence that faith communities possess. Not the raw power of bare-knuckle politicking, but the moral power that comes from integrity, faithfulness, compassion, wisdom and discipline.

It was this kind of moral power that ended British rule over India, put an end to the practice of using children as factory workers, brought about the end of racial segregation in the United States and dismantled apartheid in South Africa.

Rev. Pfleger prancing behind a pulpit shrieking out his political comedy, and Rod Parsley growling into a microphone about the insidious evil inherent in all Muslims, stand as but two examples of the serious and sad reduction of faith to mere political theater.

Jesus warned us this would happen. He told us wolves dressed as sheep would find their way into our midst and prey on God's people. He just didn't tell us they would be wearing "Vote for Me," buttons.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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Tags: Church-State Separation, Jim Evans, Politics, Religion, Theology