The Changing Face of Christian Politics

Looking back, 2013 is likely to be remembered as the final collapse of the old, confrontational Religious Right in favor of a less partisan, more pragmatic approach.
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A new generation of Christian leaders is trying to emulate Pope Francis's model of appealing to a wider audience without giving up the basic tenets of the faith. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

In the closing days of 2013, Representative Steve King summed up the year in religion and politics well. After a year in which Christian leaders and organizations mobilized to pressure Congress on immigration reform, King was ready to take off his gloves: "We might lose [the immigration] debate in this country because of the sympathy factor, and it's also added to by a lot of Christian groups who misread the scripture, and I'm happy to take on that debate with any one of those folks."

As a frequent speaker at "values voter" conferences, King must have felt odd positioning himself in direct opposition to Christians. Then again, 2013 was a year defined by Christian leaders seeking to realign themselves politically to meet the challenges of a new century and changing culture.

Christian political engagement is changing in this country as believers seek to untangle their faith from the worldliness of partisan politics and ideology. The melding of Christianity and partisan politics has been 40 years in the making, but the costs of that entanglement have only become clear to Christians over the last decade.

In response to changing cultural mores in the 1960s and '70s, religious leaders like the Reverend Jerry Falwell—who had previously spurned partisan political engagement—called Christians to "stand for what is right" through the acquisition of political power. "In a nation of primarily Christians," they reasoned, "why are we struggling to influence our nation's policy decisions?" Soon, Christians became aligned in practice and perception with the Republican Party, pursuing almost exclusively a one-party strategy for political victory.

In the 1980s and '90s, the power of the religious right was a defining feature of American politics. Ronald Reagan, a Republican, famously told a group of conservative Christians that "you can't endorse me, but I endorse you," the type of flattery that nearly gave his audience the vapors. Bill Clinton, a Democrat, ran for president making rhetorical concessions on the issue of abortion (it should be "safe, legal, and rare"), and while in office he signed the Defense of Marriage Act and made school uniforms a cause célèbre. But although Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson influenced Republican presidential primaries as favorite candidates of the religious right, it was George W. Bush who finally cracked the glass ceiling and was elected as the first president leaders of the Religious Right could claim as "one of us."

But conservative Christians learned that the political power to elect a candidate is different than the political power to govern. Sure, the White House hosted James Dobson each year for what amounted to a "kissing of the ring" session to mark the National Day of Prayer that Dobson's wife Shirley established a non-profit to support. Bush called for a "culture of life" at major public forums, and made a push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage during his second term. Yet the substantive, lasting policy victories conservative Christians hoped for were not achieved: Abortion remained legal, no federal amendment to ban gay marriage passed, and school-sanctioned prayer time remained unconstitutional. Moreover, as the original leaders of the religious right moved out of leadership, the next generation of pro-GOP voices for conservative morality were not religious leaders, but political advocates: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins (a former Louisiana state senator).

As George W. Bush's approval ratings plummeted during his second term, many Christians who had been invested in the Religious Right movement began to reconsider their partisan posture in politics. In my conversations with Christian leaders and voters, I've found that there are two common motivating factors for this change. First, the political issues that draw Christian concern go beyond what the political system has suggested. Christian organizations have supported issues like prisoner rehabilitation, international development, immigrant services, and healthcare for literally centuries in this country. The legacy of Christian political activism in America spans not just the culture wars, but America's founding, the abolition of slavery, and the advancement of civil rights. To Christian leaders, and many Christians themselves, it was incomprehensible that they came to occupy such a small space of our political discourse. How could it be that they could elect a nation's president, but lose its politics?

But Christians also faced a similar and still more pressing question: How could it be that they could elect a nation's president, but lose its people?

Two books in the late 2000s helped answer that question.  In 2007, Unchristian, a book written by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman based on original research, sent shockwaves through the church that continue to resonate. They found that young non-Christians have profoundly negative views of Christians. For instance, among 16- to 29-year-old non-Christians, Christians were viewed as "anti-gay" (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent), sheltered (78 percent) and—surprise—"too political" (75 percent). In 2010, respected academics David Campbell and Robert Putnam's landmark book, American Grace, concluded that partisan politics was directly to blame for the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans. "The growth of the nones," Campbell argued, "is a direct reaction to the intermingling of religion and politics in the United States." Jonathan Merritt was more blunt in his assessment of the impact of a partisan faith: "As American Evangelicals have become more partisan, American Christianity has suffered as more shy away from the faith."

For Christians, this research confirmed what they were experiencing in their own lives: an open antagonism in the culture toward Christian ideas and doctrine; a sudden change in conversations when they mentioned their faith; the assumption of their politics that came with a knowledge of their faith; the sudden need to make clear that they were "not that kind of Christian." Pastors increasingly found that a partisan politics was pushing people away from faith  and causing tension among those in their churches. Things had to change. 

The posture of Christians in politics that has begun to emerge in the wake of this realization is, well, otherworldly. These Christian leaders tend to be younger—Millennials and Gen-Xers—but you can find baby boomers in their midst. Most of these leaders are new to the scene, but their role models are older leaders who have been able to recalibrate and adjust their approach as the times have changed. They are pastors in America's cities and suburbs where they serve at the bleeding edge of our society's most pressing challenges, but they are also entrepreneurs, artists and politicians. They seek influence, but their ultimate commitment is faithfulness. They have their political preferences, but they're willing to work with anyone. And they're willing to disagree with anyone.

I worked with this type of Christian leader when I worked in the White House faith-based initiative during President Obama's first term. Regardless of the party that received their vote on Election Day, Christian leaders took fire from their traditional partisan allies to work with the Obama Administration on issues like protecting the social safety net, supporting fatherhood, strengthening adoption, and combating human trafficking. Congress's bipartisan passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2011 would not have been possible without religious support, and any congressional act on voting rights in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision is unlikely without the support of these Christians. And Christian leaders have been among the most outspoken advocates for immigration reform as well, as I wrote last summer, and as Steve King learned for himself.

This model is exemplified by the evangelicals who worked with Sam Adams--the first openly gay mayor of Portland, Oregon—to create the Summer of Service, which Adams has called the most successful endeavor of his time in office. As Kevin Palau, one of the leaders of the Portland partnership, told The New York Times: "Young evangelicals absolutely want their faith to be relevant .… The world they grew up in and got tired of was the media portrait of evangelicals are against you, or evangelicals even hate you. Young evangelicals are saying, 'Surely we want to be known by what we're for.'"

This idea that Christians should be known what they are for is now a common one. You'll hear it in conferences and church sermons, not just from intellectual leaders, but from pastors at the grassroots. It is a rallying cry especially for younger Christians—their corrective response to the more strident, oppositional faith of the previous generation.

It is also at the heart of Christians' love affair with Pope Francis: This pope is known by what he is for. Just about everyone loves Pope Francis so far. He's polling at 88 percent among all Americans. He was named Person of the Year not only by Time but also by The Advocate, a leading publication for the LGBT community. Obama quoted Francis as part of his case against income inequality, and Obama's former chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, recently wrote a glowing column praising the pope as "the most hopeful development for world affairs in 2014."

But for Christians, particularly those who feel religion's influence in this country is slipping—as a vast majority of both believers and non-believers do—Pope Francis offers something of a test case: Can Christians still thrive in the American public square while continuing to hold to the basic tenets of their faith?

Yes, Francis is the pope who washes the feet of Muslim girls; who expresses humility first when presented with the opportunity of judging a person, gay or straight; who sneaks out at night to serve the poor—but he is also consistent with traditional Catholic doctrine on homosexuality, women in Church leadership, reproductive issues, and other topics that have brought the Church under criticism in recent years. As Nancy Gibbs suggested in Time, the pope "has not changed the words, but he's changed the music."

However, changing the music may not be enough: attempts to box Pope Francis in have already begun. A close ally of the pope recently spoke out against "manipulation" by the media of statements the pope has made to suggest a break from Catholic doctrine. In The Washington Post, Max Fisher suggested the pope has "preferred symbolic gestures" over "productive diplomacy." A Salon columnist faulted his encyclical on economic justice for not including support for gay marriage and an endorsement of accepting women in the priesthood. As Francis's honeymoon potentially comes to a close, what happens if the pope's policies do not conform to expectations?

These questions aside, it is the case that in 2013, for the first time in decades, the loudest Christian voices were the peacemakers. The hopeful. The grace-givers. Sure, the same-old people who profit from conflict still have their megaphones, but they are starting to be drowned out by those who prefer partnership to opposition and conversation to screeds. And though important internal debates are happening among Christian leaders and in small groups across the country, it is important to note that many of the voices taking this new posture (like Francis) still believe the same fundamental things about Christian doctrine.

So what does this new Christian political posture mean for the culture wars? The last big dust-up of 2013 offers a glimpse. When Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson made his incendiary remarks in an interview with GQ, one would have to be forgiven for expecting that we were about to have another "Christians vs. gays" battle in the culture wars. And, certainly, there was some of that. But the aftermath also showed the beginnings of a third way, a 21st-century common ground. Some of the most representative Christian articles and blogs on the subject were encouraging introspection on the part of Christians, such as Jen Hatmaker's call for Christians to be "peacemakers" (not habitual culture warriors), and Rebekah Lyons' post on the importance of the words we use, and Christians' need to be "messengers of peace." Wesley Hill's post for First Things, a staple conservative publication, was probably the most surprising and incisive, as he wrote: "… just because someone quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and is opposed to same-sex marriage doesn't mean that they're speaking up for a theologically informed, humane, pastorally sensitive view of what it means to be gay."

There were also surprising voices questioning A&E's decision to suspend Robertson. LGBT writer Brandon Ambrosino wrote for Time on the bigotry of the reaction to Phil's remarks. "Why," he asked, "is our go-to political strategy for beating our opponents to silence them? Why do we dismiss, rather than engage them?" CNN's Don Lemon—who is gay and has spoken out passionately on air against homophobia and discrimination in the past—also said on air that he opposed firing Robertson. More than the headlines would suggest, many people with different views on LGBT rights came to agree that ending a conversation is vastly different from winning an argument.

During the string of retrospectives that greeted the new year, many named 2013 the year of a progressive renaissance. From the continued rise of the religiously unaffiliated, to the progress of marriage equality as a political and cultural force, and the election of Bill de Blasio, many observers have suggested we're entering a new and more liberal era: The old ideas have been tried, found wanting, and Americans are now ready to discard them, we've been told.

Even for those who would welcome a new, enduring progressive era, declaring one does not make it so. I believe the story of 2013 was different. Rather than discarding old ideas, Christians returned to the basics, shedding some of the political baggage and layers of allegiances gained in the previous century to return to their most fundamental allegiance: to Jesus and to people. They are reaching for a new equilibrium between the prophetic and the pastoral, between mercy and justice, the aspiration of holiness and the free gift of grace.

A clear example of this new kind of public posture is the Imago Dei Campaign launched last month by evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Liberty University's Mat Staver, and Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, producers of the History Channel's The Bible, among others. The Imago Dei (latin for "image of God") website declares, "For the image of God exists in all human beings: black and white; rich and poor; straight and gay; conservative and liberal; victim and perpetrator; citizen and undocumented; believer and unbeliever."

As Elizabeth Dias reported in Time, the campaign is an effort to "erode the culture war battle lines that have helped define evangelical discourse for the better part of half a century." It amounts to an admission of sorts on behalf of evangelicals. That they feel they have to launch a campaign to reaffirm a doctrine as old as the book of Genesis, suggests evangelicals have allowed this fundamental principle to become obscured. Like Pope Francis's statements, Imago Dei does not accede on issues like gay marriage—it even reaffirms the view that abortion is immoral—but it does express a new humility, a new acceptance, that would have never occurred under the old partisan paradigm. It offers a pathway for dialogue and persuasion: If gay people are to be afforded dignity as those made in the image of God, what does this require of our rhetoric? What does it require of our laws?

The question for 2014 is whether political and cultural forces will support or undermine this new equilibrium. Will Christian humility on controversial issues be welcomed, or will a full renouncement of their beliefs be demanded? Can our politics build upon the unlikely alliances of the immigration-reform movement to continue relationships on areas of common ground, or will we force groups into boxes using ideological litmus tests? Can we insist on a truly inclusive America, or will parochial interests and short-term political battles distract us?

I think we will look back at 2013 as a turning point in the Christian project to live out and project a holistic, positive, and hopeful faith. It was a year of establishing new norms, in religious life and in the life of our nation. 2014 will be about how we negotiate living with this new normal. A Christianity that seeks to unilaterally impose itself on the nation is unlikely be fruitful, but it is similarly unrealistic and unproductive to force a secular morality on believers.

What will be required of our political and religious leadership in this year is not diversity alone, but an understanding of diverse groups of people, with the knowledge that neither women nor men, gay people or straight, black, white, Latino, native, nor any other ethnicity or race, religious nor atheist—none of these various segments of the American population are going away. We need leaders, and people to support them, who recognize that the question for this century is not "how do I win?" but "how can we live together?" For Christians and for all Americans, answering this question should be the central political project for 2014 and beyond. 

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Michael Wear is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He previously led faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 election campaign and worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

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