FEBRUARY 11, 2002
A New Old Sort of Union
-- Martin E. Marty
"I propose, fellow citizens, a new sort of union, or, if you please, a Christian party in politics." Speaking was Ezra Stiles Ely, who rounded up evangelicals' votes for Andrew Jackson. Moderator of the Presbyterian Church and head of the American Sunday-School Union, he was big time. (He won political points for his party by beating back anti-Jackson attacks by Baptists in 1823.)
Ely's words appeared in a talk, "The Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers." Elected officials had to be bound to his view of Christian truths and proper behavior. He favored a coalition of Protestants to prevent any "avowed infidel" like John Quincy Adams, Unitarian, from ever being elected. Link them all and they "could govern every public election in our country." Historian Charles I. Foster in Errand of Mercy wrote of all this that "the American theory of the relationship between government and religion did not again attain this extreme position."
As for Ely's event, that was then, back in 1828, and now is now. As for Foster's judgment, that was then, back in 1960, and now is now. Alert: "This extreme position" is back, in only slightly disguised form, as Laurie Goodstein points out in the February 3 New York Times. The extremity of the old extreme is only slightly disguised in an initiative by North Carolina Representative Walter B. Jones, Jr., and in responses to it on the Christian electronic circuits. His "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" would "permit churches and other houses of worship to engage in political campaigns." The I.R.S. could not work to penalize churches and pastors who urge their flocks to support a particular candidate.
Critics see it all as a barely covert, hardly stealth campaign by Pat Robertson and others who want to be able more explicitly, with less pretense of disguise, to back their chosen candidates. They in effect "propose, fellow citizens, a new sort of union, or, if you please, a Christian party in politics." They have already named which that is, and the I.R.S. has not clamped down. Nor is it likely to go to the bother of rigid enforcement of statutory provisions.
Many evangelicals who might agree with the Jones initiative and the Robertson politics are uneasy. Goldstein quotes Reverend Ed Young of Second Baptist Church in Houston, whose words remind us of a different era in America's Baptist churches: "I just think the religious entities of America need to keep their prophetic voice. And you lose that if you send money to politicians or openly support them during an election season." Believers who push the boundaries of what tax exemption means risk backlash from the majorities who do not want, in effect, through tax exemption, to be subsidizing religious and political positions that they reject.
Correction: In "Of Patriots and Saints," Sightings, February 7, Jonathan Ebel stated that the St. Louis Rams lost at New Orleans this season. The teams faced each other twice. St Louis lost the first meeting in St. Louis, but defeated New Orleans in New Orleans later in the season.