What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Let's keep the church political

Now that I have your attention...

My Right Reason blog colleague Dan Bonevac has a post on the "emergent church" and "church growth" movements in evangelicalism and their goal to move evangelicals to the left in political activism. To my mind this is numinously evident from overwhelming evidence, one prominent bit of which is Rick Warren's switcheroo from listing abortion as a "non-negotiable issue" in 2004 to his appearing recently with none other than Barak Obama to oppose AIDS. (Was someone in favor of AIDS?) His response when challenged is given by a commentator in Dan's thread: "Left wing, right wing. I want the whole bird!" This, to my mind, more or less defines "shallow," but apparently not everyone agrees.

What bothers me most of all as I've been googling things like "abortion" and "Brian McLaren" (guru of "emergentism") is the pretense that these folks are trying to make the evangelical church apolitical. Right. Crusading about global warming and hollering about the terrible "dominance of the religious right" on evangelical churches is so apolitical.

A couple of weeks ago I had a close Catholic friend visit. She went to Mass at our local parish, St. Monica's (on Mother's Day, which was especially appropriate) and came home mentioning how pro-life of a parish it is, how there was a special prayer at the end for an end to abortion and so forth. I guess Mr. McLaren and his friends would also deplore this as the "dominance of the religious right" at St. Monica's.

Let's admit: In the present social context, when emergentists and their ilk tell us that they want to "shift the focus away from politics in the church," here's a translation: "Let's not talk in religious gatherings about abortion, because it makes lefties uncomfortable. But rallies about poverty, AIDS, and global warming are wonderful. That's speaking prophetically to the present age."

Glad to have that little misunderstanding cleared up.

Comments (23)

The only reason that many Americans consider abortion a "political issue" and then look on the churches as interfering with "state" issues (thereby trampling on an area the churches should not be preaching about) is that America has been brainwashed to believe that if politicians and judges are involved on an issue and the MSM ordains it a state issue--then it is a state issue not a religious-moral issue. At which point the churches should become mute. But who gave the state and politicians and the MSM the power to decide which issues are theirs and which are religious-moral and "belong" to the churches???
This attempt at pigeon-holing what issues the church can preach and organize around is classic totalitarianism and typical of places like the former Soviet Union. It should not be typical of a free and democratic people anywhere.

The only reason that many Americans consider abortion a "political issue" and then look on the churches as interfering with "state" issues (thereby trampling on an area the churches should not be preaching about) is that America has been brainwashed to believe that if politicians and judges are involved on an issue and the MSM ordains it a state issue--then it is a state issue not a religious-moral issue. At which point the churches should become mute. But who gave the state and politicians and the MSM the power to decide which issues are theirs and which are religious-moral and "belong" to the churches???
This attempt at pigeon-holing what issues the church can preach and organize around is classic totalitarianism and typical of places like the former Soviet Union. It should not be typical of a free and democratic people anywhere.

If you really want to make churches political, you will have to give up the nonprofit tax status. Of course, some churches have done that and they feel liberated to preach politics all day long.

If you instead want to make religion exclusively about the culture wars, you will need to start excommunicating a lot of members. Which is sort of interesting coming from a Protestant, since they have a religious tradition that already includes dissent.

A while ago, Zippy gave a mild counter to my overly partisan mind-set that was clever. "Well, you know, some things are dichotomies and some aren't." I think the problem is that most political issues are dichotomies, or more accurately stated they have major elements which can be defined in conflicting ways, and faith in the transcendent is one way to get around division to find unity. So religion's secondary mission besides salvation is to seek unity through common beliefs. By this criteria, Warren is building a bridge of dialogue that can find common ground while still maintaining distance for his nonnegotiable positions.

Btw, Warren did not say what type of bird it was. It may be an albatross. :)

Somehow, I very much doubt that those issues are so _very_ non-negotiable for Warren anymore.

Second, you don't have to excommunicate people to do the kinds of things evangelical churches have done for years: Teach unequivocally to their youth on these matters, speak from the pulpit about these things as sins, offer prayers for an end to abortion, announce upcoming events like marches for life or town meetings on homosexual activism initiatives. These are _exactly_ the sorts of things the emergentists object to when they come on issues _they_ deem "right"--like abortion.

And I should add that, when people are living in open sin themselves, Protestants definitely _do_ believe in excommunication. Baptist churches have an elaborate process for it. Didn't you know?

On Warren: Here's a thought experiment: Suppose I were an evangelical leader (heaven forbid). Suppose I said, "Hey, I'm concerned about modesty _and_ women's rights. I want the whole bird." So then suppose I hold a big conference to which I invite as my "good friend" the fellow from Australia known as the cat's-meat sheikh for his comparison of women without burkhas to "uncovered meat" who can expect to be raped. And suppose I said, "Hey, I want the whole bird. But this guy and I can hold a _modesty_ conference together and address this very serious issue of immodesty in today's world together." Would anybody think my commitment to helping oppressed women was all that important to me anymore?

"Let's not talk in religious gatherings about abortion, because it makes lefties uncomfortable. But rallies about poverty, AIDS, and global warming are wonderful. That's speaking prophetically to the present age."

What I know about the emergent types is what their critics say about them but I would hope that it is possible to talk about all of these things.

I would be interested in reading why you doubt that abortion is no longer non-negotiable for Warren. I haven't read anything that suggests this. Also, call me dense, but I don't get how your comments about the "cat's-meat sheik" relates to the emergent types.

Why do I doubt Warren's continued commitment to opposing legalized abortion? Because Barak Obama supports the legality of, among other things, the procedure whereby children's brains are sucked out before their dead bodies are delivered, yet Mr. Warren apparently thinks it's no problem to treat him as a big friend and to work in a highly public and visible way with him on political issues--different ones, of course. Perhaps that answer will help to explain the sheikh reference: If you take the issue of abortion seriously, as if you take the issue of beating and raping women seriously, you do not in a highly visible, public fashion make common cause with a man whose views on this very important subject regarding the brutal treatment of other people differ diametrically from your own. If you do make common cause in such a way with such a man, it is legitimate to infer that the type of brutality in question is not as important to you as whatever cause it was for the purpose of which you officially associated yourself with that man. If people understood the seriousness with which a real pro-lifer takes the abortion issue, they would not think that Warren's highly visible, friendly, deliberate cooperation with Obama was such a light matter to be brushed off merely as his doing it for the purpose of addressing one issue (AIDS) and as having no relevance to Warren's commitment on the other issue (abortion). People _do_ take raping women very seriously, so the analogy to the cat's-meat sheikh may help them to understand why Warren's formally working with Obama is a problem for pro-lifers. Obama's views on abortion should be very nearly as abhorrent and beyond the pale to a pro-lifer as the cat's-meat sheikh's views are to any civilized human being. I hope that is clarifying.

I hope this isn't too off topic, Lydia, but I don't understand Step 2's comment that "If you really want to make churches political, you will have to give up the nonprofit tax status." I mean I understand it in the sense that I've heard it before, but I don't understand why "political" issues that bear directly upon the moral conduct of a people and its politicians should be off-limits to the institutions that actually have a moral obligation - a commission from God, in fact - to teach about those very things, but can do so only on pain of punishment.

You're completely right, Bill. I just didn't happen to address that comment of Step2's. As I understand the tax law, only express advocacy of a candidate is off-limits for churches and other non-profits. That is, you can even go so far as to say, "Candidate A's position is contrary to church teaching on issue X" without violating the terms of your non-profit status. _Certainly_ a pastor or priest can address issue X, _whatever_ it's "hot" nature in the political milieu, from the pulpit, in a conference, Sunday School class, or whatever. And he has a duty to do so, IMO, and the more serious the issue, the more duty.

There is, of course, some intended humor in my title. It is those who want to shut people up on abortion (and get them to say more about other issues that are *at least* equally "political" and *less* clearly related to the church's mission) who are throwing around the word "political" as a bad word. They are, as I point out in the piece, being somewhat disingenuous, to put it mildly.


As far as I am aware, express advocacy of a candidate is the only forbidden action for nonprofits. That is what I meant by being political, campaigning for a political candidate.

I left open the more likely possibility that she wants to make churches an advocate for her side in the culture wars. Which is perfectly fine as a role for churches, but if they are going to focus only on exclusive issues they should, as a matter of consistency and unity, exclude members who do not share that narrow focus.


I'll take the bait. How many Protestant excommunications have been done over the past decade, compared to the number of "liberal" Protestants?

As for your analogy, I think the issues you chose were mutually exclusive in a way that AIDS prevention and abortion are not. If you believe in women's rights, you cannot also support the subjugation of women. If you believe in AIDS prevention, you can still be opposed to abortion. If you want to suggest that the sheik should be an outcast from the community, that is a different question altogether.

Step2, the whole excommunication thing is a red herring, and I'll show why shortly. To answer your question, in most cases, no one who isn't in the congregation is in any position to know that excommunication has taken place. No statistics are collected. I have known of two temporary excommunications, one in a Baptist church and one in an Anglican church. In Anglican churches (as in Catholic churches) the process is quite private and even fellow parishioners may know nothing about it. I suspect another case has taken place within my ken but am conjecturing. In both the cases I know of definitely--one over a theological issue, the other over ongoing immorality--the situation was resolved and the person was readmitted to the congregation and/or communion. (The very meaning of excommunication varies depending on the denomination.) You probably know as well as I do that in local churches strict enough, theologically or morally, actually to excommunicate people, the people in question are likely simply to stop coming if they know they are doing something contrary to the church's teachings that is likely to get them "kicked out" in whatever sense. And the issue is not a Catholic/Protestant one. "History of dissent" is entirely irrelevant to such probabilities. You're more likely, for a number of reasons, to be excommunicated from a fundamentalist Baptist church for, say, living with your girlfriend than to have disciplinary action taken in a Catholic church.

You probably also know that most of the liberal Protestants around belong to liberal Protestant denominations--liberal politically, morally, and theologically. This brings me to the irrelevance of the whole excommunication issue. I said, "Let's _keep_ the church political," not "Let's _make_ the church political." I have no program in mind for turning liberal parishes and churches into conservative ones. What I'm saying instead is that conservative churches should resist various movements that are trying to make them stop or mute or water down their witness on various issues in "the culture wars." And that witness has gone on just fine without any need to put positions on these issues into the church's creedal affirmations and make explicit beliefs about them a condition of membership. You ought to know, if you don't, how this sort of thing has worked sociologically: The more theologically conservative churches tend also to be more politically conservative. If people are _living_ in a particular sin that has "culture war" implications, they may be excommunicated, depending on the strictness of the church and its practices, but that would be true even of sins (like adultery, say) that are less "hot-button" cultural issues and not usually regarded as "political." If the pastor speaks from the pulpit about abortion, homosexuality, etc., this tends to make people uncomfortable if they are politically liberal, and they are less likely to seek membership. If they do seek membership, and if highly specific creedal affirmations are required, these are themselves likely as a side effect to weed out political liberals. That has been the case for many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant churches. And so forth. (It is no accident that Brian McLaren is well-known not only for trying to change the churches' political orientation but also for trying to water down creedal orthodoxy.) While I _would_ advocate that some cultural issues be included in statements for organizations like colleges, I wouldn't advocate it for churches, and it hasn't been necessary. I'm advocating retaining the old status quo since about the 1980's, which obviously has "worked" well enough in terms of having the churches be a witness on cultural issues like abortion, because if it hadn't, the emerging church types wouldn't be trying to change it. Would they?

Now, on your claim that my parallel is poor regarding the rape sheikh--no it isn't. You have the wrong parallel. The parallel to "AIDS" is "modesty." And it is possible to hold that women should be modest while not holding that they should be raped, just as it is possible to hold that AIDS is bad (or whatever they were making such a song and dance about) and that abortion is wrong. But you could, indeed, replace "modesty" with some other issue if this would make the example a better parallel in your opinion. If some evangelical leader had a highly visible and formal rapprochement with the rape sheikh to try to "fight global alcoholism," the point would be the same: Obviously, the evangelical leader isn't nearly as concerned about the sheikh's horrible position on rape as he is about "global alcoholism," which means that (from the perspective of people who take rape seriously), he isn't concerned enough about the sheikh's position on rape. The parallels to Barak Obama have, again, been spelled out in my response to Roberto Rivera. The rape sheikh should be an outcast from formally organized joint efforts by those who reject emphatically his views on rape. Barak Obama should be an outcast from formally organized platforms by those who reject emphatically his views on abortion. It doesn't matter what the issue in question is on which such people feel like making common cause with the rape sheikh. Rick Warren made highly visible and friendly common cause with Barak Obama in a formally organized joint effort; hence, Rick Warren probably doesn't reject emphatically his views on abortion or doesn't think them as important as a staunch pro-lifer would think them. It doesn't matter what the issue is on which they were speaking out together. Again, I hope this is clarifying.

Brilliant comments, Lydia.

Sort of like inviting good ol' Benito M. to speak at your train time-table convention.

Thanks, Paul.

Yeah, or asking Adolf H. to run your youth basketball nights to help keep kids off drugs and off the streets. :-)

I will take the contra-argument.

I don't believe churches should be political, because the central tendency in such cases is to comment upon the behavior of others. I was a member of a Baptist Church for a time, and political issues always became us v. them. Politics allowed us to believe that we were basically okay and the rest of the world was the problem.

Later while attending an Evangelical Church with my wife, the pastor stated he was probably going to get a lot of grief for what he was about to say. In the future, he may even be arrested for what he was about to say. He proceeded to say that gay marriage was wrong. Oh Amen! brother. There wasn't a lick of bravery in the comment. 99%, if not 100%, of the congregation agreed with him. There wasn't a homosexual anywhere near the doors of that Church, let along one seeking to be wed.

What would have been brave would have been to talk about the attrocious divorce rate amongst the Church members. Over half the congregation was made up of remarrieds. And what would be proper to most churches is to throw the politics overboard and start trying to sanctify the congregation and the surrounding community.

I disagree, M.Z. The comments from the pulpit deemed "political" take up a very small fraction, in my experience, of the church's overall time. Yes, they make a difference to the atmosphere, but it doesn't seem to me a bad difference. Consider the fact that people in our culture are being bombarded day after day, and night after night too, if they watch TV, with the message that homosexuality is perfectly normal sexual behavior and that anyone who says otherwise is a hateful bigot who deserves some sort of punishment (as yet unspecified) and at least to be societally shunned. I have read in a recent Touchstone Mag story a woman quoting a friend of hers who had tried to raise her children to hold to true Christian moral precepts. But the woman said, "The societal pressure was just too much. Now that they're grown up, they're good kids. But they believe homosexuality is normal." The occasional comment from the pulpit to the contrary is hardly dominating the church's time and provides a needed couterweight from a presumptively morally authoritative source. Moreover, a church with that sort of pastor assures its members that Sunday School teachers or youth leaders who expressly teach their kids to be "open-minded" about such things will probably be sacked--no minor consideration for parents.

Something similar is true about abortion, which is even more likely than homosexuality to be a practical issue for the church membership. It's good for them to know clearly that their local church leadership is not ambivalent about this matter and sees it as a place where the rubber meets the road in terms of the societal implications of their Christianity.

Your pastor's comment that he was "probably going to get grief" may have been exaggerated given the actual people present, and maybe he should have known that. But that he could some time in the future be arrested if he said such a thing from the pulpit was no exaggeration. Such arrests have happened in European countries which our elite is trying to move us to emulate in our laws. Visitors go to suspected morally conservative churches in Canada deliberately to "monitor" the sermons for anti-homosexual "hate speech" and initiate government harassment.

In my experience, the most conservative churches that are likely to speak out about abortion and homosexuality also do speak out about divorce. I do not know what is "with" some people nowadays to see speaking out about these two things as in conflict. On the contrary, the sexual revolution is very much of a piece, and those opposed to one part of it are likely to be opposed to it all. Perhaps your experience has been different than mine. I know one man, a very conservative fundamentalist Baptist retired professor, who refused to go to the wedding of one of his best friends because the man was marrying a divorced woman. She had been the innocent party, and I can imagine that if she had been Catholic she might have been able to get an annulment. The two men interpreted Jesus' words on the subject of divorce and remarriage differently, and the man I know felt it his duty to boycott the wedding. That's the sort of thing you get with strong moral and political conservatives. They are also likely to push for sermons and youth group talks against fornication, which is _less_ likely to happen if you say, "Let's ditch the politics." Too often that means, "Let's ditch the controversial moral teachings on sexual issues that some people _think_ are political," which leads to _more_ propagandizing kids about The Environment rather than teaching them loudly and clearly to keep their clothes on. So far from being "either/or," sanctifying the congregation is in my opinion closely tied to speaking out against abortion and homosexual behavior.

It really depends where you are. At the Baptist church I was attending, if we weren't discussing the culture war, we were talking about how we were saved. In the evangelical church, the pastor within a few weeks made mention in his sermon of how we need to be accepting of divorced couples and even asked those who were single by divorce to stand and be recognized. In referencing how one day he may be arrested for making such statements, he did reference a case in Canada. I am happy that your Baptist friend did speak against divorce although I am surprised.

I think you hit fairly when you say that those who object do so more on the partisan line, as in we need to talk about the environment and not just abortion. I think talking about either is a bit of a waste. A lot of it reminds me of "Just Say No!" during the 80's. We end up asking people to sign up for an ideology rather than a way of life.

To give you an example of particular pride, I'll offer what the priest-administrator of a Long Island schood did about 2 years ago. He cancelled the prom and sent a letter home to the parents stating exactly why he did it. He argued against the materialism, alcohol abuse, and sexual anarchy that had been allowed by the parents to foment amongst the youth.

One problem with what the pastor did in having divorced "singles" stand to be recognized is that it makes no distinction between women whose husbands dumped them against their will and the husbands who did the dumping. (And it cd. go the other way with the genders, of course.) No-fault divorce is a terrible thing, and one of the ways it harms our society is that it mixes up guilty and innocent in a way that is indistinguishable without prying. You learn some woman is divorced, you can hardly ask her, "So, did your husband leave you and get a no-fault divorce against all your protestations?" But if that's the case, then even if it's true that she shouldn't remarry (which it may be), she herself has at this moment done nothing wrong to be divorced. But the pastor, it sounds like, was just promoting acceptance of the divorced state per se, which is not good.

What the priest administrator did was completely right. Bravo.

But it's not a waste to talk at least from time to time about the evil of abortion in a church context. If you think infants are being horribly slaughtered legally in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it's an indescribable blot on our country's collective conscience that people shouldn't be able comfortably to ignore, especially when voting. We'll probably have to agree to disagree on the question of church mention of the issue.


Although I did know that churches don't publicize excommunications at a local level, it was a surprise to me that they don't keep some sort of tabulation on the overall number. I also was aware that there is a political divide within churches at both the denominational level and between specific churches. So given that there is already a divide within Protestant and evangelical circles, it seems to me like conservatives are the ones telling their liberal cousins to be quiet, not the other way around. It might be some mixture of both, with both sides claiming an authority to speak for the entire group, when it is anything but univocal.

I understood what the parallel was supposed to be, and we apparently agree that the intent the sheik has in "modesty" is based upon threatening and subjugating women. I was mistaken to say that those issues must be mutually exclusive (although I think they often are), but they are clearly exclusive in the beliefs of this sheik.

Richard Land, head of SBC's Ethics Commission gave his stamp of approval. "Rick is having a summit on AIDS, and Barack Obama has said some compelling things about the issue. I work all the time in coalition with people to the right and left of me, when we're in agreement on a specific issue. One of the markers of Evangelicals is the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time." Brownback, by far the most socially conservative candidate for president, was also attending that same meeting with Obama. Does that mean his commitment to ending abortion should be questioned? If not, why not?

Substituting alcoholism into the analogy makes much more sense, and I would say maybe. If most of the sheik's moral and political views are as violent and hostile as that one, no common ground would be possible since his world is completely disconnected from mine. This is the most likely outcome, but I would have to actually research the sheik's other views. If instead his other beliefs were reasonable and this exception is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of religious text, I would consider it as a means to build moderate dialogue. If he was also able to influence a large audience that I had no ability to reach, I would give it further consideration as a practical matter of achieving a mutual goal.

Last point, at least for this comment, is that all of this controversy is based on the perception that Warren was endorsing Obama's cause when it was really about Obama endorsing Warren's cause.

I don't think Brownback should have attended, but my impression from what you're saying is that he didn't set it up and wasn't running it. Warren was more at the forefront of the whole thing, I believe. That does make a difference as far as what it says about the person's commitment on the issues, but again, I would like to see Brownback distance himself still more. Another point is this: In my opinion, pastors should be _more_ purist and _less_ inclined to compromise for the sake of coalition building than politicians, not more. Politicians have, unfortunately, gotten into the habit. Warren was striking out along new lines, and more's the pity.

My impression is that Warren now considers AIDS "his issue" as well. I don't care who claims AIDS as whose issue. The point is, he shouldn't be seeming to endorse Obama in this way and normalizing him in the eyes of his (Warren's) many followers. Abortion is supposed to have been Warren's issue, among others (like homosexual activism), if he's a conservative Christian leader. The question isn't one of endorsing Obama's issue but of making Obama look like a great guy and "someone we can all work with on this other stuff." That in itself weakens the message as to the entirely unacceptable nature of Obama's views on other issues and the importance of those issues. And let's not forget that Obama is a very plausible candidate for President or Vice President. Surely that should be relevant to the whole social dynamics.

I'll have to say, I like M.Z.'s sensitivity on the divorce issue.

What I'd like to know is what Warren and Obama considered the AIDS issue to actually consist of. Did they have some idea of what to do about it? If so, I have a feeling I wouldn't like the answer.


I think you are trying to pigeonhole Warren into something he's not. I have not read anything where he has described himself as a conservative Christian leader. He wants to be a Christian leader, period. His role model, by numerous accounts, is Billy Graham. Graham also made an serious effort to reach a consensus with liberals on particular issues, while maintaining an uncompromising stance on conservative issues.

As far as I know, Step2, no one ever accused Billy Graham of declaring abortion a non-negotiable. Far from it. Graham was, after all, the guy who never left the tour on his trip to the Soviet Union and declared when he got back (this is a paraphrase, of course) that he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about religious freedom; _he'd_ seen no suppression of religious freedom while he was over there. In the conservative churches of my childhood, Graham was regarded as a useful idiot for the Evil Empire and a theological wuss. If Warren wants to be like him, I'm not surprised. Even before Warren started hanging out with Barak Obama, he wasn't exactly deep. The ladies' Bible study I attend--most of the members of which have no pretensions to intellectualism--underwent a partial mutiny after a while when the leaders were having us go through Warren's book. I wasn't the only one who felt patronized by it.

But the point about Warren is that there has been a shift of emphasis in terms of politics. Not only is he no longer talking about conservative social issues as non-negotiables. That could be compatible with his leaving the social and political applications of faith out of consideration altogether and sticking to a mere kerygmatic message. But on the contrary, he has made highly visible rapprochement with a person who disagrees with him on his previous non-negotiables, a person who is a real possibility for the Democratic nomination for President or Vice-President in an election less than two years away, in order to address a _different_ set of quasi-political social issues. And I would mention too that his previous listing of "non-negotiables" was in the context of a pro-Bush political discussion apropos of the 2004 election. If you can't see that as a shift to the left, I can't help you.

The other point is that this is characteristic of a larger trend within evangelicalism, one which has been noted and hailed again and again, in the liberal press itself, as a good move. If some of us don't regard it as a good move, at least people shouldn't try when talking to us to deny that it's happening at all.

And lookee: Here this morning is a story about "progressive" (I _think_ we can read the political code there) evangelical leaders who are upset that conservative evangelical leaders get quoted more in news stories.


Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.