By John W. Whitehead
"We've only got one politician who's willing to stand up for Christ, and that's Rick Perry."—Rich Bates, attendee at Gov. Rick Perry's "Response" prayer rally and day of fasting
"I'll get on my knees and pray we don't get fooled again."—Pete Townshend, "Won't Get Fooled Again"
The Christian Right, apparently having learned nothing from George W. Bush's disastrous reign, seems determined to appoint yet another political savior, this time in the form of Rick Perry, the Republican governor from Texas. Perry recently made headlines after he hosted a prayer rally endorsed and attended by such notable members of the Christian Right as the American Family Association (which financed the event); James Dobson of Focus on the Family; David Barton of Wallbuilders; megachurch pastor John Hagee; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. The rally was viewed by many as Perry's attempt to test the presidential waters with conservative evangelicals, who represent a sizeable voting bloc.
At Perry's urging, more than 33,000 individuals gathered on Saturday, August 6, in Houston's Reliant stadium to fast and pray for the nation. The event, described as "part prayer service, part Christian rock concert, and part marathon pep rally for Jesus Christ," was also broadcast live in 1,000 churches across the country. As Kasie Hunt writing for Politico reported:
The setting here said everything: More than 33,000 people packed into Reliant Stadium, a 71,000-seat arena that also hosts rock bands. Three huge TV screens showed the onstage action to the people who crowded into the stadium's second level — after they had gathered to wait while organizers opened those stands so everyone could fit. About 6,700 people got chairs on the stadium floor — but spent most of the time standing, hands in the air, moving to the music and prayer coming from the stage. More than 1,000 crammed into an open space that organizers called "the mosh area" right down in front.
Despite the fact that Perry insisted the event was not political but rather aimed at rallying the nation to a Christian unity during difficult times, the event, as the Associated Press points out, "gave him an important platform as he weighs whether to run for president." This is particularly important when you consider that evangelical conservatives make up a critical part of the voting bloc for Republican contenders. More than 28.8 million Christian conservatives—32 percent of all voters (the highest recorded percentage of any election)—turned out for the 2010 elections, with 77% voting for Republicans. Truly, the electoral might of the Christian Right cannot be underestimated.
Thus, determined to use politics to advance their agendas, the leaders of the Christian Right have had no qualms about turning churches across the country into political headquarters. And, indeed, between the Texas governor who wears his faith on his sleeve and his fawning Christian Right contingency, it's starting to feel like 1999 all over again. Thus, the comparisons to George W. Bush are inevitable. As Politico observed:
While Bush drew an entire Frontline series on his faith and its role in his presidency — and plenty of outrage from liberal groups for his religious beliefs — he more often used "dog whistle" signals to let supporters know where he stood. There was a mention of "wonder-working power" in a State of the Union address, and a reference to a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho during his inaugural address. But Perry is different. "Rick Perry is a more overt kind of person, in his politics and his religion," said Response speaker Richard Land, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a longtime Bush associate.
He's also more at home with the new brand of evangelical Christianity than Bush ever was — in public, anyway. Raised Methodist in tiny Paint Creek, Texas, Perry used to attend the same Methodist church in Austin that Bush did when he was governor. But now he goes to a megachurch that, he told the Austin American Statesman, "dunks. Methodists sprinkle." George W. Bush's favorite hymn was "A Charge to Keep I Have" — lyrics 1762, music 1832. Right before Perry took the stage on Saturday, the crowd rocked out to "Hear Us From Heaven" — almost everyone was mouthing the words.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with people gathering to pray for the nation. Nor is there anything wrong with the fact that Rick Perry, who is expected to throw his hat into the presidential race, is a Christian. The danger arises when Christians wrap their religion in the flag, so to speak. For the Christian, country and faith are never synonymous, and they are not two equal loyalties. As Christians in past regimes have found, identifying with the political establishment, as much of modern evangelicalism is doing, can present a grave danger—not only can the church become a useful tool for politicians, but the establishment can and often has become the church's enemy.
Not only is identifying with the established powers perilous, but it also negates what it really means to be a Christian. Christians are not to identify with power but to speak truth to power—even at great costs. Martyrs, past and present, testify to this.
Yet like moths flickering about a hot flame, the leaders of the Christian Right are eager to get close to political power. Unfortunately, as we saw during George W. Bush's disastrous tenure, there is always a price to be paid for power and prestige. In the process of seeking policy outcomes and funding for faith-based initiatives, the Christian leadership was seduced by political power to such an extent that the true message of Jesus was being held hostage to a political agenda. Whereas Jesus was a homeless, itinerant preacher who taught charity, compassion, and love for one's neighbor, today's Christianity is more often equated with partisan politics, anti-homosexual rhetoric, materialism, affluent megachurches, and moralistic finger-pointing.
One person who understands all too well the danger of fusing religion and politics is David Kuo, who served as Special Assistant to President Bush from 2001-2003. In his book Tempting Faith, Kuo describes the way in which the Bush Administration manipulated Christians: "Rove's Public Liaison office had a religious outreach team in constant contact with evangelical and social conservative groups about every facet of the president's policy and political agenda. As part of their outreach they held weekly—or more often, as necessary—conference calls to update that community on events and announcements while simultaneously soliciting their feedback."
Kuo continues, "This network of people covered virtually every area of evangelical Christianity. The calls began with an overview of what the president would be talking about in the coming week. If necessary, participants were asked to talk to their people about whatever issue was pending. Talking points were distributed and advice was solicited. That advice rarely went much further than the conference call. There wasn't any malice or negligence behind this. It was just that the true purpose of these calls was to keep prominent social conservatives and their groups or audiences happy. In most ways it wasn't a tough sell."
In fact, Kuo says, it wasn't difficult to convince Christians that President Bush was on the right side of virtually any tactic. "It should have been a whole lot harder because Christians should have demanded a whole lot more. But all too often, when put before power, Christian leaders wilt."
Thus, we get to the heart of the problem. Genuine religion never attempts to merge with politics. If it attempts to influence politics at all, it's by speaking truth to power and acting as a moral compass for society. In fact, the Christian Right does Christianity a disservice by greatly misrepresenting its founder, Jesus, who rejected politics as the solution for what ails us. Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) for a clear sense of his priorities. To Jesus, religion was all about helping the poor, showing mercy (even to your enemies) and being a peacemaker—not a warmaker. He did not bless the powerful. Rather, Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek."
Neither did Jesus seek political favors or power. He was apolitical and anti-politics. In fact, Jesus had a tendency to attack and undermine political power. He had no qualms about getting in politicians' faces. Even with his back ripped open and bleeding, Jesus stood before Pilate, the man who had the power of life and death over him, and spoke truth to power: "You could have no power over me if it were not given you from above." Jesus understood that the legitimate use of power does not include using it to impose one's will upon others. From the Christian standpoint, the proper use of power is to seek justice for all.
Time and again, the Christian Right leaders have sacrificed their principles to the false idol of politics. In the process, they have sold their souls for a bowl of political porridge. As author C. S. Lewis once wrote, "He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself."
Unlike many Christians today, Christ did not engage in politics, identify with the government, or attempt to push an agenda through government channels. In fact, for Christians to be stridently aligned with conservative politics is to miss the point of their religion. "One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative," Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer wrote. Conservatism, as such, means promoting a political agenda and, thus, maintaining the flow of the status quo. True Christians, however, should be revolutionaries against a status quo dedicated to materialism and the survival of the fittest.
Most of all, there is a dire need for a compassionate Christianity. As Martin Luther King Jr. warned, "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."