The Common Good
March-April 1995

Getting Beyond Labels

by Jim Rice | March-April 1995

Serpents, doves, and the Religious Right

Ever since Peter and Paul had opposing views about ministry to the Gentiles, there have been divisions in the Christian church. But rarely in the course of church history have differences among Christians been so exploited and manipulated for political gain by those outside the church as is the case today.

It is true that many Christians have taken an ideological approach to religion. But the proper response to such people isn't to take an opposing ideological position. Rather, it is to

encounter them humbly, prayerfully, and firmly rooted in scripture-after all, they are our brothers and sisters in faith.

For while there are indeed consequential disagreements between segments of the church, the bonds that unite us as Christians are stronger than the differences that separate us. It's important to distinguish between Religious Right institutions-some of which are nothing more than right-wing political organizations-and the often well-meaning individuals under their influence.

How should we relate to other Christians associated with the Right? Here are 16 suggestions to get you started.

1. Get beyond the labels and seek to understand others' point of view. Shorthand phrases such as "conservative Christian" lump together people with a wide variety of beliefs, many of which likely resonate with our own. For instance, while "family values" has become an oft-abused right-wing catch phrase, many Christians are legitimately concerned about the evident decline in values in our culture, and seek ways to respond. While we may not always agree on the responses, it's important that we respect and understand the undergirding motivation if we are to have genuine communication.

2. Build relationships across the polarities. It's tempting to take an "us-them" stance toward Christians associated with the Religious Right, but we can't forget that all believers are joined in the body of Christ, despite political differences. We need to strengthen those bonds and build real community, instead of merely adding to the divisiveness. Remember, each part of the body has its own function-and we need each other to be whole (1 Corinthians 12:12-30).

As relationships grow, genuine communication can follow. A beginning point is to find the common ground between you and articulate it. Don't be afraid to say, "Here's where we agree." Be explicit about the core of our faith that binds us as Christians. Often it almost seems that Christians from different streams of the church speak a different language; try to speak in language that will not be off-putting to your listener.

3. Share the good news. In many ways the gospel of Jesus Christ is very different from the nationalistic and materialistic "gospel" taught by right-wing preachers and politicians (or, for that matter, from the purely social gospel taught by those at the other end of the spectrum). We have a responsibility to our sisters and brothers in the faith-from all parts of the church-to hear their point of view and to ask what part of their message could improve our life and our faith journey, just as we have a responsibility to testify to our own scriptural understandings. As written in Ephesians, "You must speak the truth to one another, since we are all parts of one another" (4:25). If we honestly seek the truth, we must have confidence that the Spirit will lead us in the right direction.

4. Study the Bible. Become more familiar with the scriptures that form the basis of our beliefs; be prepared to articulate the biblical basis for social and political positions. For some of us, that may mean memorizing the specific texts that back up the broader scriptural themes that are central to our faith. While we rightly steer clear of proof-texting, we all can benefit by deeper immersion in the Word.

When discussing "political" issues with other Christians, focus on the biblical basis of beliefs. Examine the underlying assumptions of positions, and the sources of those assumptions. (For example, are they cultural and national assumptions, or are they biblical and theological assumptions? Many ideas are based on a little of both, and it's worth sorting it out.)

5. Set up a dialogue/discussion group in your congregation to discuss the biblical and theological basis of your positions on various issues. Gathering on a regular basis can help build the trust among members of the group that will enable you to get into honest and frank conversations that can transcend partisanship and narrow categories.

6. Preach from the pulpit on so-called social, cultural, and political issues, exploring the wisdom that scripture brings to topics from today's news. Biblical reflection on issues relevant to our lives is the most appropriate sermon material possible, and can help flesh out in real-world ways the very meaning of the gospel. Pastors should explicitly critique theologies whose roots are more ideological than biblical, whether of the Right or of the Left. These aren't merely "political" issues, they're faith and theology issues, and thus belong in the church.

7. Write letters. A Sojourners member in Iowa wrote a letter to a Christian bookseller that prominently displayed Rush Limbaugh's The Way Things Ought to Be, asking, "How can you claim to be a Christian bookstore and sell that kind of book?" The manager of the bookstore wrote back to say he hadn't considered the question, and that he'd stop selling the book. We shouldn't, of course, condone book-banning, but it is fair to expect Christian bookstores to be intentional about the content of the choices they make for their limited shelf space. Take a positive approach: Encourage Christian stores to carry books that deal not only with personal faith but with social justice themes as well.

8. Don't write off Christian radio and other such media as necessarily right wing. While they tend to be wary of (if not antagonistic to) traditional big-government-liberal approaches, they may be surprisingly open to alternative, biblically based viewpoints. In addition, they're licensed to reflect community standards. Write letters to stations (and to the FCC) requesting a diversity of views. Call in to radio shows, and let them know that their audience is broader than one type of listener; affirm the things you agree with and give alternative points of view when called for. Try to get spokespeople on the shows.

9. Invite a church that has a political stance differing from your own to join your congregation on a joint project or worship service. Build the relationship. Be prepared to hear from the members of the other congregation about their beliefs, and to share with them the basis of yours. A deeper, richer understanding of the gospel just might emerge.

10. Political groups-from both sides of the spectrum-intentionally seek to exploit our spirituality. Take it seriously! We must be "as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves" in such matters. Many Christians are influenced by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing media personalities. Ministers and other church leaders should be aware of and explicitly respond to what people are listening to. Research the "facts" spouted on these radio and TV shows; some are bald-faced lies, some are gross distortions, and some are simply unsubstantiated opinions disguised as facts. Write an article for your denominational newsletter or magazine exposing these demagogues and explaining why Christians ought to be very wary of such polemic.

11. When you do things in the political/public sphere, do them as Christians. To much of the media, the word Christian has become synonymous with right wing. We need to re-establish "Christian" as a positive word that connotes caring for the poor, peacemaking, and welcoming the stranger. We should claim the moral authority that's reflected in our country's rich legacy of Christians acting as Christians on behalf of justice and peace, from abolitionists to anti-war activists and from suffragettes to freedom fighters.

12. Don't be reactive. Develop your own agenda. Ask yourself, What does my community need? Get beyond the general and the rhetorical to address the specific and practical steps and programs that can begin to address these needs. These pragmatic strategies ought to form the basis of our own "contract" with our community and nation.

13. Support Christian organizations that offer an alternative voice to the Religious Right.

14. Don't give up! It's easy to get discouraged by the apparent ascendancy of the Religious Right and the Right in general. Be hopeful! Keep the faith! Keep fighting! Keep your eyes on the prize!

15. Pray. Without ceasing. "Pray all the time, asking for what you need, praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion" (Ephesians 6:18).

16. Live your convictions. Nothing speaks louder than integrity. "You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received-Jesus the Lord" (Colossians 2:6-7).

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