The Common Good
July 2005

A Wake-Up Call to the Churches

by Jim Wallis | July 2005

We must never claim that those who disagree with our judgements are not people of real faith.

As I'

As I’ve traveled the country this spring - 82 events, 48 cities, and hundreds of media interviews since January - I’ve witnessed a new movement of moderate and progressive religious voices challenging the monologue of the Religious Right.

An extremely narrow and aggressively partisan expression of right-wing Republican religion has controlled the debate on faith and politics in the public square for years. But that is no longer true.

At packed book events around the country these days, I often make an announcement that elicits a tumultuous response: "The monologue of the Religious Right is finally over, and a new dialogue has begun!" Smiles light up the faces of thousands of people as they break out in thunderous applause.

That new dialogue was visible in mid-May at Calvin College. Karl Rove, seeking a friendly venue for a commencement speech in Michigan, approached Calvin and offered President Bush as the speaker. The college, which had already invited Nicholas Wolterstorff of Yale to deliver the speech, hastily disinvited him and welcomed the president. But the White House apparently was not counting on the reaction of students and faculty. Rove expected the evangelical Christian college in the dependable "red" area of western Michigan to be a safe place. He was wrong.

The day the president was to speak, an ad featuring a letter signed by one-third of Calvin’s faculty and staff ran in the Grand Rapids Press. Noting that "we seek open and honest dialogue about the Christian faith and how it is best expressed in the political sphere," the letter said that "we see conflicts between our understanding of what Christians are called to do and many of the policies of your administration."

The letter asserted that the administration has "launched an unjust and unjustified war in Iraq," "taken actions that favor the wealthy of our society and burden the poor," "harmed creation and [has] not promoted long-term stewardship of our natural environment," and "fostered intolerance and divisiveness and has often failed to listen to those with whom it disagrees." It concluded: "Our passion for these matters arises out of the Christian faith that we share with you. We ask you, Mr. President, to re-examine your policies in light of our God-given duty to pursue justice with mercy...." One faculty member told a reporter, "We are not Lynchburg. We are not right wing; we’re not left wing. We think our faith trumps political ideology."

On commencement day, according to news reports, about a quarter of the 900 graduates wore "God is not a Republican or a Democrat" buttons pinned to their gowns.

THE EVENTS AT CALVIN, along with the growing crowds at our events around the country, are visible signs that the Religious Right does not speak for all Christians, even all evangelical Christians. Yet, other stories this spring told of their escalating attempts to claim that mantle.

In April, Religious Right leaders held what they called "Justice Sunday - Stopping the Filibuster Against People of Faith" in support of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Speakers as much as said that those who opposed their political views were not people of faith.

Then, at a small Baptist church in North Carolina, nine members had their membership revoked because they had supported John Kerry. According to news reports, the nine walked out of a church meeting when their pastor asked them to sign documents agreeing with his political views. When the controversy gained national attention, the pastor resigned, and the expelled members rejoined the church.

These stories are the logical, inevitable result of the road the Religious Right and some Republicans have taken. It is the assumption that Christians must accept one partisan political position or be accused of not being Christian. We must reject this assumption and insist on the deep connections between spirituality and politics while defending the proper boundaries between church and state that protect religious and nonreligious minorities and keep us all safe from state-controlled religion. But we must not respond the way they do. We must never misrepresent the truth. We must never claim that those who disagree with our judgments are not people of real faith.

We can get some historical perspective by looking at how Martin Luther King Jr. did it. In his famous 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," addressed to white clergy who opposed him on issues of racial segregation and nonviolence, never once did he say that they were not people of faith. He appealed to their faith, challenged their faith, asked them to go deeper with their faith, but he never said they were not real Christians. We must, as he did, make moral arguments and mobilize effective movements for social change that can powerfully persuade our fellow citizens, religious or not, on what is best for the common good.

The Republican Party is not God’s own party, as the Religious Right and some Republican leaders seem to be suggesting. And, of course, neither is the Democratic Party. We must say it again and again until it is heard and understood: God is not partisan; God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God or co-opt religious communities, it makes a terrible mistake. We must not allow faith to be put into the service of one political agenda - God’s politics challenges all our politics.

What I hear, from one end of this country to the other, is how tired we are of ideological religion and how hungry we are for prophetic faith. The students and faculty at Calvin College are the most recent sign of that hunger.

Their actions are a call for the rest of the churches to wake up. It is a call for people of faith to stand up and let their faith be heard, a call for clear speech and courageous action. It is a call to take back our faith and, in the words of the prophet Micah, "to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God."

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