Playing the Race Card

Can the words "Christian" or "faith" appear in proximity to political issues? And if they do, what should they mean? On May 23, a delegation of U.S. Christian leaders came to Washington, D.C., to proclaim to the press and the country's political leadership that yes, faith and values are vital to the public life-and if they are genuinely expressed they should transform our discourse, policy, and social fabric. What true biblical faith doesn't do is let religious conviction be manipulated by partisan politics.

"America is fed up with what many in the church are doing, polarizing us into Left and Right. Christians are called to a politics of reconciliation," said Tony Campolo at a press conference held that morning. Such reconciliation is needed, Campolo said, within the church as well as in society.

The group-which was refused a requested meeting that day with the Christian Coalition's executive director, Ralph Reed-expressed a desire for substantive dialogue with those in the Religious Right. Following the May 23 events, Reed agreed to a future meeting with representatives of the group.

Rev. James Forbes noted that he found elements of truth in all branches of what is now "a divided family" of Christianity. What is not acceptable, Forbes said, is that "some who call themselves Christians encourage politicians to pray the Lord's Prayer without the Lord's Spirit."

For people of faith, a non-negotiable biblical concern is the call to speak on behalf of the poor, not the powerful, to demand justice as well as righteousness. "All Christians need to pray for discernment," said Forbes. "If your agenda is in conflict with Jesus, who proclaimed, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,' then we need to heed Isaiah's instructions, 'Come let us reason together.'"

Margaret Cafferty spoke representing 80,000 women religious who run the clinics, hospitals, inner-city schools, and shelters for battered women, who help the people who are hurt when the government cuts funds and society turns away. "What is absent from the public debate is concern for the common good," Cafferty said. "When religion is used to further the aims and blames of special interests, it's blasphemy."

Campolo laid out a plan of concrete steps that the group wants to take next: organizing a "progressive evangelical caucus" that would present an alternative point of view at what usually have been conservative evangelical events, such as the National Religious Broadcasters convention; encourage a new student faith-based movement that would work with and in local communities, rooted in churches as well as campuses; and help promote community politics, convening town meetings that call people together to address community issues such as poverty, teen pregnancy, and gay bashing.

AFTER THE MORNING press conference, the group traveled to the U.S. Capitol, where they met with Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and six other Democratic members of the House. These legislators expressed their dismay at the attacks they've received from the Christian Right when they didn't vote the correct "Christian" position on specific measures, from the balanced budget to welfare reform, and they welcomed the chance to hear other Christian voices.

The church delegation met with Republican members including Majority Leader Richard Armey and Speaker Newt Gingrich, who committed to a follow-up meeting on the role of government and private organizations in dealing with poverty here and abroad. The group then met with Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who spoke of the ways that churches can strengthen the social fabric at the local level, and the need for new and creative ways for private voluntary institutions to partner with government resources. Part of the delegation subsequently met with members of the White House staff.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson said he came away from the meetings with the strong impression that "members of Congress are looking for ways in which moral and spiritual values can become part of political discussion." Many members, Granberg-Michaelson said, "are deeply distressed over the identification of Christian faith with a narrowly partisan agenda."

The delegates who gathered in D.C. were representative of the broad range of nearly 100 prominent church leaders-evangelical, mainline Protestant, Orthodox, black church, pentecostal, and Catholic-who signed a statement, "The Cry for Renewal: Let Other Voices Be Heard," which was released to the public that morning. As Granberg-Michaelson, head of the oldest Protestant denomination in the United States, put it, "This is a true Christian coalition. We are speaking for those churches that have for too long been the silent majority."

"The Cry for Renewal" decries the deleterious role that religion has recently played in public affairs, claiming that it has "too often made our political debate even more divisive, polarized, and less sensitive to the poor and dispossessed." Instead the document, drafted by a number of the religious leaders, states, "If religious values are to influence the public square, they ought to make our political discourse more honest, moral, civil, and spiritually sensitive, especially to those without the voice and power to be fairly represented."

Overall, the day was an encouragement to believers who want to bring faith and values to all parts of life-the public as well as the private, the town hall as well as the home, policy as well as liturgy-but who don't feel represented by those who have politicized religion. If we are to live out a prophetic faith, then the poor will be more important than power, the way we talk together will be as important as what party we vote for, and compassion and service will shape our lives.

"The Cry for Renewal" document is available from Sojourners, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009; (202) 328-8842.

Participants in "The Cry for Renewal" events:
Margaret Cafferty, P.B.V.M., executive director, Leadership Conference of Women Religious; Tony Campolo, evangelical author and preacher; James Dunn, Baptist Joint Committee; James Forbes, senior pastor, The Riverside Church, New York City; Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary, Reformed Church in America; Ray Hammond, co-founder, Ten Point Coalition, Dorchester, Mass.; Steve Hayner, president, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; Roberta Hestenes, president, Eastern College; Eugene Rivers, co-founder, Ten Point Coalition; Ron Sider, president, Evangelicals for Social Action; Jim Wallis, founding editor, Sojourners.


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