September 19, 2002
-- Lloyd W. Rodgers
Last week in West Georgia, the highly publicized Republican run-off for U.S. House District 11 raised valid questions regarding the public's perception of religion and politics. At the urging of Republican leadership and, one assumes, after a time of prayerful consideration, ordained Baptist minister, public educator, and respected publisher Cecil Staton decided to run for first-time public office as a conservative. Staton lost the September 10th run-off to Phil Gingrey, a former state senator, after an acrimonious campaign in which issues of religious belief and public policy featured prominently.
It was an unlikely scenario from the start. At the same time Staton was running as a religious and political conservative, he was principal owner of Smyth & Helwys, a successful publishing company specializing in theologically moderate literature. Earlier in his career, Staton served as leader of a congregation affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists. Having established his credentials squarely within the culture of those who are theologically moderate, it came as a shock to many when he campaigned as a political and religious conservative.
This perceived religious and political dissonance was apparently not lost on those of the mostly rural West Georgia district. One of the issues that caused considerable comment was a piece mailed by the Staton campaign staff that began "Dear Christian." With so many other high-profile, controversial elements in this campaign, one has to wonder how polarized the District was even before folks opened their mailboxes. One contributor to the "Bartow Buzzard" wrote, "I can't believe Staton starts his newest mail piece off with 'Dear Christian' . . . how about just 'Dear Voter'? That's just pushing things too far!"
Did Staton really "push things too far"? Most Christians would agree that while the dichotomy between the secular and the religious is at times a useful distinction, it represents a dangerously artificial barrier. The faith commitment to follow Christ involves every area of life, including (perhaps especially) issues of public policy. Perhaps the problem was not that Staton responded to a call to political leadership based on faith commitments, but his reliance on the Nieburian paradigm of "Christ and Culture," which assumes that culture is a monolithic structure. The phrase "Dear Christian" may imply the existence of a faith-defined people group that is not nearly so homogeneous as Staton and his staff imagined.
As Roger Clapp (A Peculiar People, 1996) and others have observed, Christians are members of more than one culture at a time. The various worldviews that impact faith give a rich texture to our pluralistic communities, both inside and outside the church.
The irony of course is that Staton's own life and campaign reflected this diversity of faith narratives. One of the folks at Smyth & Helwys, responding to criticism that Staton's conservative politics was at apparent odds with his publishing efforts, stated that Staton's political campaign is "wholly separate" from his work at Smyth & Helwys. Staton, and many others like him, thrive in this multiplicity of cultures.
It would seem then that the key to maintaining healthy tension in our struggle to be "public Christians" lies in understanding and responding appropriately to this myriad of "Dear Christian" cultures.
Lloyd W. Rodgers, Ph.D. is a Baptist missionary serving as professor of New Testament and Missions at a seminary in South America.