Monday, July 31, 2006

America Not a Christian Nation

One would have thought that was obvious -- just take a look around. But it's big news to some "evangelicals," including those at Woodland Hills Church, in Maplewood, Minnestota.

According to the Times article linked above, both members and visitors to this midwestern megachurch used to routinely ask the pastor, Gregory Boyd, to blur the church-state line:

Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-
abortion work? Would the church distribute “voters’ guides” that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn’t the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

To his credit, Boyd turned them down; and in the course of turning them down, preached some sermons on the subject, which are now a book.

Also in the course of turning them down, Boyd managed to lose a thousand members. A thousand. For us pastors of decidedly non-mega churches, that's darned near unimaginable. But the truth is, Woodland Hills has plenty of members, and -- what with all the publicity -- will doubtless soon recoup its losses. More important, they have a pastor who showed some real theological chops, along with solid leadership ability, by taking the hard route and saying things like this:

“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses .... When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

And don't get this wrong. It's not like the guy has done a David Brock, and turned from a right-wing loudmouth to a left-wing loudmouth. On the contrary; Boyd remains solidly conservative in his social and political views. He just doesn't think it's his job, or his congregation's, to turn the church into a partisan political engine. And apparently, this idea is massively threatening to the thousand or so members who quit, including the ones the Times quotes.

(Think what that means: these are people who believe that their church should be a partisan political engine. They think it should tell people how to vote. They think it should work toward a civil society governed by Christian doctrinal conclusions. They think it should endorse candidates, or come as close as the law allows. These people may not know what Erastianism is, but they sure do like it.)

Now, here's the irony: we in the mainline denominations have spent a generation dealing with mirror image of Boyd's plight. Ever since Viet Nam, there has been a well-documented breach between mostly-liberal pastors and their mostly-conservative congregations. Plenty of pastors get warned in no uncertain terms against "preaching politics from the pulpit," or variations on that idea. More than a few have been run out of town on the proverbial rod because they ignored the warning. And by gum, a lot of us had to admit over the year, those laypeople had a point.

Not that churches should remain silent on political questions -- despite our many failures, we have a pretty good handle on this whole morality business. Nor even that preachers have to studiously avoid current events -- if you are talking about adultery and everybody knows the President is an adulterer, you might point to him as a Terrible Example. Likewise with alcoholism, close-mindedness or warmongering. All I'm saying is that sometimes -- and especially in times like these, with the nation divided into parties as defined by mutual hatred as the rowdiest and most gap-toothed football hooligans in Manchester -- the Church may best be served by preaching the Gospel and letting people make up their own minds about how law, forgiveness and love ought best to be expressed at the polls.

Big words, a reader might object, from a priest whose own blog is all about the intersection of politics, sex and religion. But the truth is that I keep this blog, in large part, as a place to say things that I am exceedingly careful not to say in the pulpit. The congregation I presently serve, St. Gothicus-by-the-Laundromat, was deeply injured by a previous pastor who simply couldn't keep his mouth shut on political matters. Week after week, sermon after sermon, he railed against the critics of an Administration he particularly admired, accusing them of treason, blasphemy and other forms of badness. And week after week, his words fell like a bludgeon on the ears of anybody who did not agree with him.

People are sick of being bludgeoned, at least from the pulpit. Let's save the bludgeoning for vestry meetings and private confession, shall we? In our most public moments, when the Church doors are open and people are coming and going, let's try to stick to the main point: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the friend of sinners and the hope of a weary world.

Now -- isn't that evangelical?

No comments: