June 1, 1999
Christian Political Activism a Waste of Time?
-- Martin E. Marty
WORLD magazine editors invite us to use their lenses for looking in once again on the Christian Right. We have a wandering eye that looks at rights, lefts, centers, and beyonds, so we welcome their invitation. The May 15 WORLD (firstname.lastname@example.org) gives evidence that we might better speak of the Christian RightS; The plural does more justice to the movement. Think of it as at least bifurcated along lines that put "politics" and "culture" into some tension with each other. Other tension lines: between those who seem to advocate "a Christian America" and those who would witness in the America that is.
Paul Weyrich, a Christian Right founder, made news this spring through a widely-publicized letter that was "misread," he says, as a call for conservative Protestants to be passive while "waiting" for a better time. Not so, he says. Just clean up their act, pick their shots, do more to change the culture, and stick to the churches' prime business first.
A book by columnist Cal Thomas and minister Ed Dobson, BLINDED BY MIGHT (Zondervan) also "stirred up some dust this spring." WORLD explains that authors call for Christians "neither to have faith in government, nor to withdraw from politics, but to develop a 'third way' that emphasizes the character of a society more than the political coloring of its leaders."
WORLD invited comment from eight respondents--politicos, theologians, and commentators. Asked to debate whether the 20 years of Christian activism "have been a waste of time," none of the eight thought they were. Some, mainly politicians, wanted more of such activism. All agreed that the activism had made significant differences. Most agreed that there are limits to politics and that the churches needed a broader program than political activism.
Professor D. G. Hart of Westminster Seminary and Michael S. Horton, author of BEYOND CULTURE WARS, were most searching in their cautionary remarks. They expressed worries that some on the Right were following liberal Protestantism in confusing Christian-based political activism with the advance of the Kingdom of God. Horton says this sort of Christian activism "has been shallow, confused, reactionary, and narrowly focused on behavior almost to the exclusion of larger questions of justice, community, selfhood, duty, and so forth." The idea of a "Christian America" struck several respondents as dangerous. Several called for more theological probing.
WORLD certainly gave ample space to those critical of the critics, people who are active supporters of activism. All of which proves that the Christian Right, here to stay, can incorporate tensions, polarities, criticisms, self-praise, and resolve. It may be troubled, but there are plenty of signs of life. Family quarrels are among them, as they are among other kinds of believers.