The Common Good

What Do You Mean by Politics? (Part 1 of 2 by Brian McLaren)

A recent New York Times story, "Taking Their Faith, but Not Their Politics, to the People," highlights the challenge faced by followers of Christ who seek to integrate their faith with all aspects of life, including political life in a democracy. The article suggests to me a question that we should raise more frequently when people address "faith and politics," or "faith versus politics," namely: "What do you mean by politics?"

The article begins and ends by recounting a mini-culture war going on in Missouri. It may be no surprise that the conflict involves Southern Baptists, who are known for their willingness to plunge headlong into battle for what they believe is right (in both senses of the word). What's surprising, though, is that the battle isn't between Baptists and secular-humanist-postmodernist-liberal-heathens outside, but rather with fellow Baptists.

It turns out that some members of a SBC-affiliated new congregation called the Journey gather on occasion to discuss theology and life with their unchurched friends in (gasp) a pub. Some fellow Baptists see this as the first step on a slippery slope that may lead to alcoholism, drug addiction, fornication, and (I'm partially joking here) maybe even Democratic and Obama-voting tendencies, so they have agreed not to fund new churches like the Journey in the future.

The article mentions another fissure in the SBC structure. This one pits a 25-year-old graduate of Liberty University - and son of a former SBC president - against Richard Land, SBC giant in public affairs. This David-Goliath conflict concerns not beer but the environment, and whether Southern Baptists have been too timid in addressing environmental issues. Jonathan Merritt, starring as David, took a stand on behalf of the planet and has drawn about 250 others (and counting) to stand with him. Land, seemingly convinced that environmental regulations are presently a greater threat to humanity than environmental degradation, has criticized Merritt and friends, and has in fact persuaded some of the original signors to un-sign.

Dean Inserra, 27-year-old pastor of the Well in Tallahassee, Florida - another SBC church more in the tradition of David than Goliath - offers his assessment of the tension: "There is so much resistance to the environmental initiative because it is a threat to the right-wing agenda that has crept into the Southern Baptist Convention." Then he raises this question: "How is taking care of God's creation a political issue? Since I am pro-life, I am pro-environment."

Inserra's comment, along with others in the Times article, shows how the word "political" is used in different ways. The article's description of "a new generation that refuses to put politics at the center of its faith and rejects identification with the religious right" similarly shows the ambiguity of the word "politics." Consider the previous statement in light of what follows:

They say they are tired of the culture wars. They say they do not want the test of their faith to be the fight against gay rights. They say they want to broaden the traditional evangelical anti-abortion agenda to include care for the poor, the environment, immigrants and people with H.I.V., according to experts on younger evangelicals and the young people themselves.

In this light, "politics" means culture wars, litmus tests, anti-gay rights, narrow agendas. Is that a good definition? If we define politics more intentionally - as how groups of people organize and govern themselves - then the NYT article is mistitled and its repeated pitting of faith versus politics obscures the issue.

[continue to part 2]

Brian McLaren also blogs at brianmclaren.net and serves as board chair for Sojourners. He is an author and speaker (deepshift.org). His most recent books include Everything Must Change (2007) and Finding Our Way Again (2008).

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