Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The evangelical factor, my perspective

It has been said that 75% of "born-again" Christians voted for Bush in this presidential election, as opposed to 25% for Kerry. Bush also managed to double his support among African-Americans in Ohio from 8% to 16% (still not very impressive) apparently because of his stance on the "moral" issues, namely outlawing gay marriage.

I am among those who has had the born-again experience, so I guess that would count me among this population. Although raised in a liberal Methodist church, I reached a point in my life where I felt estranged from God and my closest friends were devout fundamentalist Christians for whom their faith was very real -- not just a religion, but a relationship, as they told me. So on a summer day in 1971 I prayed the "sinner's prayer", asking God to forgive me for my sins and to come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior.

It was a turning point in my life, but maybe not in the same way as for others who have been through this experience. I remember getting into arguments with my parents over my newfound faith, and visiting various churches. Later that summer, I attended a Billy Graham rally, which helped solidify my decision. That fall I started at a new college, Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, to finish my liberal arts education. There I visited various churches, pentecostal and baptist, but it was the student Christian group, the Willamette Christian Body, in which I felt most comfortable. It involved Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds, so there was more of a ecumenical spirit there, even while we shared our basic faith in Christ.

Over the next few years I attended a variety of churches but I could never really find a church in which to settle, and eventually my church attendance dropped almost to zero. Meanwhile, with the end of the Vietnam war I came to know many Vietnamese friends, mostly Buddhist, Confucianist or Catholic, and worked with them for the cause of human rights in Vietnam and the Vietnamese boat people. So that became the center of my life, as opposed to my religious faith. Eventually, however, I came back.

I am still a Christian, but am no longer fundamentalist, as that term is commonly understood. That is, I do not believe that only born-again Christians will go to heaven, or that Darwin's theory of evolution is untrue. It took me some years to find the right church, one where I could grow in my faith in fellowship with others while not sacriificing my intellectual integrity. In visiting a local Catholic church, I learned that the weekly Catholic mass is basically the same as what occurs when one becomes a "born-again" Christian -- to confess one's sins, accept God's saving grace, and to dedicate one's life to following Christ. I almost became a Roman Catholic, but in the end decided to join the Episcopal Church instead, its liturgy being virtually the same as the Catholic mass but with less doctrinal baggage.

In doing a Google search for "Willamette Christian body" I came across the name of Joe Fuiten. I knew Joe, but not very well, at Willamette. The son of two Assembly of God ministers, Joe became student body president at Willamette and also helped to start the Willamette Christian body. Today, he is pastor of an Assembly of God megachurch ministering to 5,000 people in Bothell, Washington and active in political affairs. In fact he launched a successful effort to register 60,000 evangelical voters in his state this year, to the obvious benefit of the Republican party. Lest there be any doubt, Joe heads the Social Conservatives for Bush campaign. But, since IRS regulations forbid churches from engaging in partisan politics, he cannot actually tell the congregation how to vote, the church ushers would just hand out voter registration forms during the service. Joe is also president of Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government, a political lobbying organization and the convener of Positive Christian Agenda, a collection of 35 Christian organizations that coordinate political action in Washington State.

In Joe's view, the war in Iraq is part of a holy war between Christians and Muslims, a war instigated by Muslim extremists, who were in turn instigated by Hollywood portraying our country as a degenerate society.

It was through his opposition to gay marriage that Joe and oher evangelical leaders managed to inspire so many evangelicals to register this year to vote. That was the big issue this election year, but Joe's opposition to gay rights goes deeper: he believes the Supreme Court was wrong to overturn the Texas anti-sodomy law. As he stated in a sermon:

I am sure that many ministers will criticize the Supreme Court’s recent deplorable decision to overturn the laws of Texas with regard to Sodomy. It was a terrible decision partly because it gives governmental approval to sinful behavior. On an even larger scale, it is the wholesale destruction of representative government in America. The people of Texas passed that law. Only by inventing a “right to privacy” in Amendment 14 of the US Constitution were they able to overturn previous Supreme Court decisions and impose their own social views on us all. Nine judges rode into Texas, captured the Legislature, disarmed the police, and made two men sovereign over all others.

Subsequently, he said he did not believe homosexuality should be outlawed, but what is the difference between that and allowing states to outlaw homosexual activity between consenting adults?

In his July 4th sermon this year, Joe featured a picture of Bush and his cabinet solemnly praying together before a meeting, even Karl Rove. It was presented in the context of defending the idea of America as a Christian nation, yet another clear message that came through is that Bush is a man of God, that he has God on his side and we should support him. Although he cannot openly allow his church to campaign for a political candidate, Joe seems to cross that line here. Commenting on the upcoming election, he said:

I have never seen this level of motivation among the church people. They perceive a genuine threat to the American way of life, to the Christian way of life as they've known it in this country now for over 200 years. They see a genuine threat, and so they want to get involved. They're registering to vote in larger numbers than we've ever seen before.

And what is the way of life that is threatened? At the website of Joe's Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government is a list of position papers, almost all of them concerning homosexuality, abortion, pornography, etc. One paper also opposed a state bill to outlaw school bullying. There are genuine differences between Bush and Kerry on these issues, also between Bush and his vice president (on a federal amendment to outlaw gay marriage). But what is sadly lacking in these various position papers is any reference to other moral issues that threaten our way of life. For example, the destruction of our environment for the benefit of corporate interests, the huge and increasing federal deficit largely because of tax cuts that mostly benefit the very wealthy, and many aspects of our war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, with the killing of civilians and the torture of prisoners, many of whom -- according to the International Red Cross -- were innocent of crimes. What happened to the Sermon on the Mount?

I remember Joe as a very intelligent and good person, and I am sure the same is true today. But it seems to me that he represents one end of the spectrum between those who believe our nation should indeed be one nation under a Christian God, and those who believe we live in a pluralistic society and recognize and appreciate a diversity of views. And I wonder how far he or other evangelical Christians want to go in opposing gay rights. Is it just gay marriage, or as the above passage indicates, does he want to outlaw homosexual practices altogether, or at least allow states such as Texas to do so? And about Iraq being part of a holy war, if that is the case it is of our own making. However brutal Saddam Hussein may have been, he was more secular than his neighoring rulers, and kept the Muslim extremists in check.

Recently, I saw a documentary on a local educational station on the rise of the religious right. Three scenes from the early 1970s struck me. One showed Bill Bright, and a song troupe of his organization Campus Crusade for Christ led by Pat Boone. The singers were dressed in a kind of 60s day-glow ersatz hip uniforms. They were trying to appeal to youth caught up in the hippie movement but they seemed kind of like robots. Then came on Bill Bright, with his pencil-thin mustache telling us how this new Jesus movement would supplant the anarchy of the counter-cultural movements with a real message of hope. I remember Campus Crusade for Christ, and was briefly involved with them, once sharing a leaflet titled "The Four Spiritual Laws" with strangers in a shopping mall.

Another scene in the documentary had quite a different flavor. This was of a 1974 protest movement started in a West Virginia school district over school textbooks that seemed too liberal. There may have been some legitimate grievances at the beginning, but the preacher-led protest quickly got out of hand, with violence (no one was killed), and a wildcat strike organized by miners. A wide range of books were considered unacceptable to these people. Many today still feel scarred by the conflict.

The third scene was of Billy Graham with then President Richard Nixon at Graham's Christian rally. That was a time when Graham was known for being close to U.S. presidents, particularly Republicans. After Watergate, Graham became shocked and disillusioned with Nixon, and in the late 1970s after visting Eastern Europe he came to urge a less confrontational approach in our relations with the Soviet bloc. To his credit, Graham's primary interest all his life has been in saving souls, not promoting a political agenda.

When I knew Joe back in 1971-72, the "Jesus people" movement in which we were both involved was a movement among young people, many of them burned out on the hippie movement, who felt an emptiness in their lives and sought to bring God into their lives and fellowship with others who had the same aspirations. At least on the surface, it was non-political. But even then the seeds were being planted for this movement to become integrated within a larger hardline politically conservative movement.

There are evangelical Christians such as Jimmy Carter or Sojourners community who still promote a more comprehensive and tolerant view of the role of the Christian in our society. It is unfortunate, though, that for most evangelical Christians, supporting a hard-right political agenda is considered God's way.


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