Hostage to an Illusion

Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, who worked closely with Jerry Falwell in the late 1970s and early ‘80s as leaders of the Moral Majority, are co-authors of the new book, Blinded By Might (see "A Declining Force"), in which they argue that the Religious Right has failed—and for which they have been roundly criticized by their erstwhile colleagues. They were interviewed on September 7 in Washington, D.C., by Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis.

Jim Wallis: Why did you write the book Blinded By Might? What made you see these questions of religion and politics in new ways?

Cal Thomas: We thought it would be good to look back on the last 20 years of conservative religious activism and assess it according to the goals we set in 1979, when Moral Majority was founded. I went back and examined what the Bible says—which is always a sobering thing to do when you’re talking about these things, and something a lot of other people seem to avoid in their opposition to this book.

Jim Wallis: Are you now saying that Christians shouldn’t be involved in the public square?

Ed Dobson: No, we’re saying Christians should be involved. Many of the issues we all wish could be changed can in fact be changed, and it doesn’t require a "political" movement to change that. It only requires Christians to be authentically Christian in their own community. Whether it be in terms of the poor, or in terms of race, or protection of human life, it seems to me as a pastor that I can deal with all of those issues, and ought to, as a working out of the gospel in my own life and in the community of faith where we live.

Jim Wallis: William Wilberforce secured passage of the 19th-century bill abolishing the slave trade. You cite his example in the book in a very positive way. The question is, How do you appropriate the example and not misuse it today? Wilberforce didn’t just try and change individual slave traders to become Christians and save some slaves. He tried to end the slave trade. They were calling for the moral consensus to be changed, but they were also trying to pursue a change in the law.

Cal Thomas: As some people who are into spinning history would have it, Wilberforce marched on to the floor of the House of Commons one day out of nowhere, and just by the force of his arguments got the bill enacted. What Wilberforce did before that was to create a lot of evangelical societies. He demonstrated by leadership what the gospel is, worked out in an individual life. He did the grunt work first.

A lot of the so-called Religious Right are spiritual shoplifters. They want to move into the arena and steal things without paying the price. The price for the serious believer is to visit those in prison, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and care for widows and orphans. All of this is hard grunt work; you can’t raise money on it—very few people want to send money in. They want to send money in to stop the "homosexual agenda," and they want to send money in to clean up television, even though a lot of them are watching it.

Jim Wallis: It sounds as if you’re not against working for a change in the structure of society, but you want it to be rooted in a change of heart.

Ed Dobson: Precisely. My responsibility as a pastor is to be preaching not only on issues of human life, but racism. To address issues of justice, healing families, working with people with HIV. As you live out the faith that way, you earn the credibility to be heard when you speak to tough moral issues. I think it was Martin Luther King Jr.—everybody loves to quote him now, including those who opposed him in the ‘60s—who said, "Whom you would change, you must first love."

Cal Thomas: Kay James says that when she goes to white evangelical churches, they want to hear messages about abortion and homosexuality, but when she goes to African American churches, they want to hear about racial justice. Her point is that everybody ought to be hearing the same message. You can’t just subdivide the gospel; you can’t have "cafeteria theology." The problem for the Right is the same problem that we’ve had from the Left in the past, that we take a selective view of scripture. We preach on the so-called comfortable things, and allegedly the sins we’re not committing, but ignore the uncomfortable things and the sins we are committing.

Ed Dobson: There are moral issues that demand actions that you wouldn’t generally do. When a whole group of people are not represented, and held in economic slavery—like in the case of South Africa—then it may in fact be the role of the church to speak up for them, including confronting the state. But those are rare issues, in my opinion.

Jim Wallis: How do we become involved in the most faithful way in the political arena?

Ed Dobson: First of all, you have to acknowledge that all authority—including tyrants’—comes from God. I say to my right-wing friends, maybe there’s a reason Bill Clinton is in office that you haven’t figured out yet. Maybe Bill Clinton’s presidency is a rebuke to the organizational powers of the so-called Religious Right. Maybe it’s God telling us you’re not as powerful as you think you are. Only when "our side is winning"—and this works for both Left and Right—do we think that we’re getting the blessing of God, when in fact it may be just the reverse.

I’m just a pastor. I have no visions of saving America. My only passion is to try to make a difference in Grand Rapids. Where we have miserably failed is we have not practiced within the community of faith what we are now expecting to be voted on in Washington, D.C.: the value of human life in all of its stages. It’s not just to protect unborn babies, but also kids after they’re born—including kids born in poor neighborhoods to crack-addicted mothers who have no hope. What are we doing for those kids? The Religious Right has propagated the idea that it all depends on who is elected. My argument is that we can change this whole country, and it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House.

Jim Wallis: It’s not the most important thing.

Ed Dobson: The most important thing is our Monday night basketball league with gang members. It’s all the women in our church who are mentoring recovering crack-addicted single moms in the community. It’s the people who volunteer to go into the public schools and read. It’s the people who volunteer to be mentors to urban kids. It’s the people who are mentoring families struggling to get off welfare. It’s people who are recovering from drugs and alcohol. Those are the things that matter.

Cal Thomas: Ed’s talking about things that really make a difference. You can’t raise money off it, or have the illusion of having political power, but you can change lives.

Jim Wallis: The United Nations Development Program recently reported that the three most wealthy families in the world today—Bill Gates, the Walton family, and the Sultan of Brunei—have greater net worth than the 48 poorest countries in the world. This is a gap in wealth like never seen before. The biblical prophets spoke about the gap between rich and poor all the time—that’s when they were most angry and outspoken on the judgment and justice of God.

Cal Thomas: The real problems of poverty are not just economic, they’re also relational. You find most poor people lack a family structure, lack a two-parent home, and lack education.

Jim Wallis: Eighty percent of the families in my neighborhood around 14th Street in Washington, D.C., which is very poor and very violent, are single parent families. If you can’t rebuild families, my neighborhood is never going to escape poverty. But if we can’t find jobs for people to have a living wage, they’re going to remain poor.

What have been some of the most important lessons out of your experience with the Religious Right’s model of faith and politics? What did you find that was most disconcerting?

Cal Thomas: That politics can be corrupting; that it can be co-opting. Chuck Colson said he found that most religious people were nanve about politics—and he should know because he was in charge of manipulating them for Richard Nixon. He would bring them in, and they would be so in awe of standing there with the president. We saw this, too, in the ‘80s; religious people would never "speak truth to power." But they’d wind up with a picture shaking hands with the president, and then they’d vote for him, or mobilize other people to do the same.

Politicians are very good at seducing pastors, preachers, and even lay people who are not sophisticated in their ways. The Democrats were a little late getting started on this, but they’re coming on pretty strong. Now they are using biblical imagery and religious language with almost as much regularity as the Republicans are. Focus groups have shown them that people care about the moral condition of the country, so they’re speaking to these things. But they’re going to be no more effective at addressing them when they get in office than the Republicans have been, because they’re basically heart matters, which the church has the greatest power to speak to.

Ed Dobson: The lesson is that the larger vision of saving a culture and saving America seemed very attractive, and quite a powerful idea, when in fact it distracted us from living out the gospel.

Jim Wallis: How do you compare the model of the civil rights movement with the model of the Religious Right?

Cal Thomas: The civil rights movement, as I reflect on it, was neither a Democratic nor a Republican issue. It was an issue of human dignity and human rights, and it was a single issue. The Religious Right was a series of issues that ultimately affixed themselves to a particular party, so therefore their success in dealing with those issues depended on whether or not that party came to power, locally and nationally. It was not a movement that captured people of all political persuasions. The civil rights movement eventually captured the heart of the nation, whatever your political persuasion.

Ed Dobson: There is a difference between trying to have morally based, grassroots "conscience politics" that tries to press Republicans and Democrats, tries to act as the whole nation’s conscience—there’s a difference between that and too much becoming political brokers on the inside.

Jim Wallis: Why do religious people allow themselves to be seduced by politicians?

Cal Thomas: We want the access. It’s what a former White House aide friend of mine called the seduction of the smell of the white paint. We’re all human beings—one of the lusts of the flesh is the temptation to political power. And the politicians are good at this! They have long practiced how to get the votes of people by telling them what they want to hear.

When a friend of mine was in the Reagan administration, a prominent Religious Right leader came to him in the White House. My friend told this leader that the attorney general was going to get involved in a school situation in Nebraska where the parents of Christian school students had been arrested for not sending their kids to the public school. He said the president could get involved, too. The leader said, "Oh, please, don’t do that! We’ve just sent out a fund-raising letter on it." My friend said, "You mean you would put in jeopardy the freedom of these people for the sake of a fund-raising letter?" The guy shrugged his shoulders and nodded his head. That’s where unchecked political involvement and obsequiousness to a particular leader can lead you, if you’re not careful.

Jim Wallis: How do people of faith, on the Right and the Left, protect ourselves from that kind of seductiveness?

Ed Dobson: By being involved in people’s lives, people who are disenfranchised, who have fallen through the cracks of the system, who have no hope. There’s something deeply humbling about sitting with someone dying with HIV, whose family has forsaken them, whose friends have turned their backs. I think it’s in those moments that you get closest to the spirit of Christ.

Jim Wallis: Why doesn’t the Religious Right talk more about those whom Christ calls the least of these?

Cal Thomas: You can’t raise money on it. I’m not being cynical when I say this. I asked the question of a fund raiser, Why don’t we ever send out a positive letter on what we’re doing with people’s money? He said, "You can’t raise money on a positive." If gun control is hot, you send out a letter on gun control. If the gay rights thing is hot, you send out a letter on gay rights. If the education issue is not particularly hot this month, you skip that.

Jim Wallis: And the poor?

Cal Thomas: No, never the poor. "The poor, you’ll always have with you." We don’t want them with us. You can’t raise money on the poor.

Jim Wallis: To have access to political power seems to be enough for some people, even though no results come from it.

Cal Thomas: You shouldn’t be surprised, because American evangelicalism has long been disenfranchised from the American political system.

Ed Dobson: We have never been affirmed by the gatekeepers of culture. When you finally move back into the political arena and Ronald Reagan says, "You can’t vote for me, but I will vote for you. You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you." Access at that point means the affirmation of who we are and who we have been as a movement. We’ve been invited up to the Big House, as they would say in the black community. We’re in the plantation home now. I’m saying let’s get back to changing our communities.

Cal Thomas: One life at a time, one block at a time, one community at a time—this is where the real power is. The church, speaking from a conservative perspective, has bought into the illusion that television gives us. If we’re not on Meet the Press, if people aren’t talking about us at political conventions, then we’re not really being effective. Jesus speaks and the Bible speaks of small things, weak things—the washing of feet, the widow’s mite, the last place at the table, humbling yourself, the foolish things of the world that confound the wise. People say, "That was good for their time, but today we’ve got to be on with Tim Russert or on Rivera Live. That’s how we know we’re really making a difference." It’s illusion. It’s false. It’s not real.

Jim Wallis: What bridges can be built between caring Christians from various parts of the political spectrum who are talking about changing communities kid by kid, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood? I’d like churches to divide up turf like gangs do—"These six square blocks belong to St. Catherine’s."

Ed Dobson: We’re working on a model exactly like that. We’re doing a lot of stuff in the community, from HIV and tutoring and mentoring to economic empowerment. We’re looking at the worst section of Grand Rapids, just five or six blocks, and saying, let’s adopt that as a church. Then go to all of the other churches in Grand Rapids and ask them to take a section.

Cal Thomas: Everybody wants to emulate success. They want to attach themselves to whatever seems to be the movement of the day. If it becomes "in" to save young children or failed schools, to put kids in places where they can get a real education, then more and more churches will do it, but you’ve got to show them how. People want to be part of changed lives. If you’re a serious believer, you will support something that is working to change people’s lives. Not just change their circumstances. Not just putting them in a better house, but putting them in a better life.

Jim Wallis: People from widely varied points of view—the Family Research Council, Promise Keepers, Catholic bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, World Relief—are all coming together around the Call to Renewal. Do you see any potential for some new kinds of configurations and alliances emerging around these issues?

Cal Thomas: I hope so, desperately. That’s one of the things we hope will come out of this book, a discussion toward that end. We need to open up the communication. We need to talk to each other. I may have a good idea that works ideologically, but I literally haven’t walked, to use a clichT, in the other person’s shoes.

Jim Wallis: There’s more talk about racism now in some white evangelical circles than in many other places in this society. That to me is a powerful thing, of great potential, to see people coming together around poor people. If there’s one thing we ought to be able to agree on, it’s what Christ said about the poor. It begins to make me hope that the old categories of ideological Left and Right might be breaking down.

Cal Thomas: They obviously are. We can’t go on like this. If we’re just talking across these huge chasms, nothing’s getting done, people are becoming cynical. None of this is working. We have the model in scripture. If we will apply it as believers, we can be a witness to the world, we can change lives, we can lead people to the one who saved lives, and we can enjoy the ultimate verdict: Well done, good and faithful servant.

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