Leaving politics aside?

godreignsWe would have looked at Laurie Goodstein's New York Times piece on an evangelical pastor disowning Republican politics even if many of our readers hadn't asked us to. Apparently a number of you had strong feelings about the piece, some loving it and some not so much. It's also the second-most-e-mailed story on the Times website right now. Goodstein writes about Minnesota evangelical pastor Gregory Boyd's decision to preach against evangelical ties to the Republican Party and evangelical confusion of patriotism and Christianity.

Before we get into anything more substantive, it must be said: Goodstein writes well. She paints a vivid picture within a few words and keeps interest through a lengthy article. She clearly takes the time to study and understand her subjects and fleshes out multiple angles without overwhelming the reader.

Anyway, let's look at a few passages:

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute "voters' guides" that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn't the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

After refusing each time, Mr. Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called "The Cross and the Sword" in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a "Christian nation" and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

"When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses," Mr. Boyd preached. "When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross."

Boyd's sermons cost the megachurch 20 percent of its members. What I found most interesting about that was that the same people who left didn't leave over an earlier controversy. Boyd had taught open theism, a rather unorthodox doctrinal position.

I've admitted my strong bias on these pages before: I think that the vast majority of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, among others, confuse the work of the church with the work of the state. I am an advocate of what Lutherans call the Two Kingdoms, a belief that the work of the church -- preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments -- is different from the work of the state -- administering laws and keeping order. The two work together, at times, but have different realms.

My thing, though, is that the media seem to have a very easy time of seeing a One Kingdom approach when its being done by evangelical Christians on the right but a much more difficult time when its done by the left. I oppose both so I find them both easy to spot. Let's see how Goodstein handles this:

Mr. Boyd lambasted the "hypocrisy and pettiness" of Christians who focus on "sexual issues" like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson's breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public.

"Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act," he said. "And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed."

It would have been nice if Goodstein would have permitted a response to Boyd's view that Jesus didn't "push peoples buttons" about sex. I mean, who said the following in the Gospel of Matthew?

"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

The whole book is full of Jesus' condemnation of adultery, fornication and lust. But, of course, the book is also full of Jesus' forgiveness of same.

I bet this passage was also the point where some readers got upset. Lambasting the hypocrisy and pettiness of Christians who focus on abortion? Them are fighting words, we have to admit. Christians have dominated the American pro-life movement for three and a half decades. I doubt that many of them would consider abortion a sexual issue so much as a life issue, but even so, opposing abortion is one of the longest-held views in the Christian church. Church fathers from the very first centuries of the church preached against abortion.

Saying that such a cause is not worthwhile is definitely taking a political position, one that advocates, essentially, the status quo with regard to the current abortion laws in the country. There are apolitical positions to take on abortion, it can be said, but lambasting Christians who oppose abortion is political, plain and simple.

Goodstein does mention that some parishioners bristled at his views, but I think it's worth noting that they are speaking defensively and not given the same treatment as Boyd. In general the parishioners who opposed Boyd could have been treated a bit better in the story. There is a coherent philosophy (one I disagree with, sure) for Christians being so political. But it's not quite fleshed out. And in some cases the politically engaged Christians were made out to be buffoons. I would not have permitted this quote to stay in the story, for instance (because I have an incredibly hard time believing that the quote accurately relates a real conversation):

Mary Van Sickle, the family pastor at Woodland Hills, said she lost 20 volunteers who had been the backbone of the church's Sunday school.

"They said, 'You're not doing what the church is supposed to be doing, which is supporting the Republican way,'" she said. "It was some of my best volunteers."

Readers also must check out the excellent video that accompanied this story. You get to hear Ms. Goodstein's soothing voice!

Photo via Beelzebobo on Flickr.

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