By Jim Wallis
Several weeks ago, Episcopal priest and former Republican Senator John Danforth began an op-ed in the New York Times by writing: “By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.” And, I would add, some Religious Right leaders are trying to transform the church into the religious arm of conservative Republicans. Either way, these partisan attempts to hijack faith and politics are wrong.
Yet each week brings a new outrage. This week’s news was of a Baptist church in North Carolina, where nine members, including three deacons, say they had their membership revoked because they were Democrats who supported John Kerry. According to the Charlotte News-Observer, the nine walked out of a church meeting when Pastor Chan Chandler asked them to sign documents agreeing with his political views. When they left, members remaining voted to terminate their membership.
While the pastor has attributed it to a “misunderstanding,” the former members say that last fall he told the congregation that anyone who planned to vote for Kerry should either leave the church or repent. One, a 75-year-old deacon, told the News-Observer: “He went on and on about how he’s going to bring politics up, and if we didn’t agree with him we should leave. I think I deserve the right to vote for who I want to.” News reports today indicate that Pastor Chandler is resigning.
It’s the latest outrage in a continuing pattern. Last year, news stories included Republicans seeking church membership lists and mailing postcards implying Democrats wanted to ban the Bible. Just a few weeks ago, Religious Right speakers held what they billed as “Justice Sunday – Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith” in support of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council was quoted in the New York Times as saying Democrats “have targeted people for reasons of their faith or moral position.”
Because many other religious voices spoke to challenge the attempt to make God a partisan, President Bush, to his credit, repudiated the equation of faith with his policies. He was asked at his recent press conference whether he thought filibusters against nominees were “an attack against people of faith.” He replied: “I think people are opposing my nominees because they don’t like the judicial philosophy of the people I’ve nominated…. I don’t ascribe a person’s opposing my nominations to an issue of faith.”
Then, on ABC’s This Week, George Stephanopoulos asked Pat Robertson about his statement that “the out-of-control judiciary, and this was in your last book Courting Disaster, is the most serious threat America has faced in nearly 400 years of history, more serious than al Qaeda…” Robertson replied: “George, I really believe that. I think they are destroying the fabric that holds our nation together…the gradual erosion of the consensus that’s held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings.”
This latest news from North Carolina is the logical, inevitable result of the road the Religious Right and some Republicans have taken.
It is the assumption that Christians must accept one partisan political position on issues, or be accused of not being Christian. This is an assumption we must reject. Rather, we must insist on the deep connections between spirituality and politics while defending the proper boundaries between church and state that protect religious and nonreligious minorities and keep us all safe from state-controlled religion. We can demonstrate our commitment to pluralistic democracy and support the rightful separation of church and state without segregating moral and spiritual values from our political life. Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Second Inaugural Address, said of the two sides in the Civil War: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” He would say the same today.
The Republican Party is not God’s own party, as the Religious Right and some Republican leaders seem to be suggesting. And, of course, neither is the Democratic Party. We must say it again and again until it is heard and understood: God is not partisan; God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for its political agenda, it makes a terrible mistake. God’s politics challenge all our politics. Our faith must not be narrowed to the agenda of one political party.
Jim Wallis is convener of Call to Renewal, a network of churches and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty, and editor of Sojourners magazine. He is also the author of the best-selling book “God’s Politics.”