When my friend Peggy was a little kid, her young mind determined that all Christians were Republicans. At that tender age, she didn't realize the word "Republican" referred to politics. Since kids can't yet grasp the concepts of governments and political agendas, the correlation made perfect sense: Her parents and their friends were all Republicans. They were all Christians, too. Thus, "Republican" must equal "Christian."
One day she overheard that a family friend was a Democrat. This puzzled her because this adult--we'll call him Mr. Smith--attended their church. The troubled little girl shared her concern with her father: "Dad, I'm worried about Mr. Smith because he's a Democrat. Does that mean he's going to hell?"
(And here's the second punch line: Little Peggy grew up to become a Democrat.)
Whenever Peggy tells that story, she reiterates this occurred when she was a child. But we all know the real humor comes from the truth within the joke: Many adults believe Christians have a specific political agenda, more specifically, a conservative Republican agenda. Andrew Sullivan, a Time magazine columnist, recently dubbed this stereotype as "Christianism."
Sullivan and others have tried to demonstrate Christianity isn't a political party. But many have bought into the stereotype. When the term "religious right" is used, everyone knows it's really Christians--and not Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or other religious practitioners--that are being referenced. Even "evangelical" is used to connote "conservative Republican." Jim Wallis, founder of the liberal evangelical magazine Sojourners, told PBS's Frontline, "I think there is a fear among many Americans about the word evangelical, evangelicals, because they associate that term with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition."
How did the word evangelical--from the root "evangel" meaning "good news," and referring to Jesus' Great Commission to share his teachings and promises with the world--become political terminology? There's a long, tedious answer to how this stereotype developed. But that's far less important than considering: Why are we Christians letting ourselves be defined as a political machine?
A friend once told me he wanted to explore Christianity but had one reservation. "I don't feel comfortable with the church's stance against gays," he told me. He's a heterosexual male who was raised in the church, and now feels his liberal leaning doesn't fit in with the Christian faith. A perceived political agenda is keeping him from seeking Christ.
Sadly, it's not entirely perception. There are plenty of adult Christians who feel one must have certain political leanings in order to be a good Christian. One must be a Republican. One must be a conservative (whatever that means). One must be pro-life without reservation. One must oppose gay rights completely. Sometimes these views come direct from the pulpit.
That definition of a "good Christian" doesn't fit most of the Christians I know. As little Peggy might have asked, "Does that mean they're all going to hell?"
Lest I be hellbound for answering "nay" to some of the above criteria, let's consider what Jesus might have been interested in if he was walking among us today. He'd surely address poverty, calling for more social programs and international aid to feed the 15 million children worldwide that die from hunger each year. He'd reach out to prostitutes and drug addicts, and embrace people most of us are afraid to touch or even acknowledge. He'd give comfort to AIDS patients and to women who've had abortions. He would speak out against hate crimes. He'd support the preservation of his Father's creation (AKA the environment).
Some argue Jesus would be a liberal today, deeply concerned about righting social wrongs. Personally, I doubt Jesus would register with any political party. During his time on earth, his primary "agenda" wasn't feeding or healing--it was forgiveness. Above all else, he wanted everyone to know they could have a relationship with God. His last words to his disciples were to spread this news. Our primary objective then, as Christians, is to share that love and forgiveness with everyone: welfare moms and A-list celebrities. Skid Row residents and billionaire tycoons. Even Democrats.
Jesus also was specific about his secondary objective: reaching out to others. Rather than working through political channels, I bet Jesus today would approach each of us individually and ask us to give our best resources to help the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the hurting. In fact, that's exactly what he instructs in Matthew 25:37-40:
Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, "When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?" The king will answer, "Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me." (CEV)
In sum, Jesus' political views would be shaped by the Jewish laws he deemed the most important: 1) to love God, and 2) to love people. Today's politicians talk about economic progress, individual rights, equality. Jesus taught about humility, giving up one's rights, being a servant--ideas far more radical than any political school of thought ever has offered.
Our faith does influence our politics, just as it influences every aspect of our lives. This Tuesday, June 6, please prayerfully go to the polls and let your individual voice be heard. I plan to take my biggest Bible and to wear tons of Christian jewelry in hopes a TV camera crew will pull me aside and ask for my opinion on the Christian vote. Just so I can tell them, "I didn't have enough time to call all the Christians in the country and get their input. But I did call my mom. Wanna hear how she voted?"
1) In your conversations with friends who aren't Christians, what are their biggest complaints about the church? What generalizations do they make about Christians and the church?
2) We sometimes create "rules" for how a Christian should think, speak, and act, possibly because it allows us to measure our own spiritual success. For example, one rule I had for myself was to read at least one chapter from the Bible every night. It began as a way to create a good habit, but soon it turned into a chore. I'd pat myself on the head when I did it, and mentally kick myself when I didn't. Eventually, I realized it wasn't about my relationship with God--it was about me feeling good about myself.
What are your rules? Do these rules improve your relationship with God, or do they just make you feel like a better person? Have your rules hurt your relationship with other Christians?
3) Many years ago, I felt disappointed when I learned a Christian woman was working at a Planned Parenthood clinic. I couldn't understand why a Christian would want to dispense birth control to people who weren't married, or discuss abortion with pregnant girls. After hearing the woman talk about her work, I realized God had placed my friend in that very difficult job. She was a compassionate Christian who had the unique opportunity of comforting scared young teens.
Think about a time you felt disappointed or angry with someone because they did something that didn't seem appropriate for a Christian. Did you discuss your feelings with them? Did you treat them differently?