Right, Left and Center
By Ron Sanders
September 23, 2008
One day last spring, on the sleepy drive to school, my 8-year-old son declared he was voting for Barack Obama. Never mind that it was still the primaries and no one knew whether Senator Obama would be the Democratic candidate. Never mind that the Republican candidate was still to be decided. And never mind that he was only 8 and wouldn’t vote for another 10 years. I asked him why he was voting for Senator Obama. His answer was crisp: “Because President Bush got us into a war.” Clearly he cared about the future of our country. My son is a one-issue voter.
As people of faith, political life is simpler when we are one-issue voters. The more problems that concern us, the blurrier our choices become. No matter what ticket we choose, this will be a historic presidential election. We have the opportunity to change America’s story by electing an African-American president or a female vice president—a significant milestone in a country that once counted blacks as three-fifths of a person and did not let women vote until 1920. It is also an opportunity to change the story of the role of evangelicals in politics.
Traditionally, evangelicalism has been associated with the religious right, the Republican party and three flagship issues: life (abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research), sexuality (homosexuality and same-sex marriage) and culture (a worry over the increasing secularism of America demonstrated in the removal of prayer from public schools, the teaching of evolution and the removal of the 10 Commandments from courtrooms). The predominant worry of the evangelical right has been the steady drift of America away from its “Christian cultural heritage.”
A smaller, but equally important, voice emanates from the evangelical left (yes, there is an evangelical left, and it is growing). The left argues that Jesus’ concern extends beyond personal moral issues to a broad political agenda that includes social justice across a range of issues often ignored by the right. Birthed out of the radical Jesus movements in the 1960s and early ’70s, the evangelical left has united around the issues of war (with predominantly pacifist impulses) and poverty (deploying social programs to help the poor). Because of its association with social justice issues, the evangelical left feels most comfortable within the Democratic Party.
Recently, a centrist position in evangelical politics has wrestled its way into the conversation. Tired of partisan rhetoric, the center wants to attach itself to what is good on both the right and the left while distancing itself from particular party affiliations. They try to avoid the nostalgic references to America’s Christian heritage and the insistence of some on the right for a special voice at the table of public policy. They also shun the left’s seeming avoidance or marginalization of the life and sexuality issues. The center wants to be independent, offering a critical voice to both parties.
Taken together, the various stripes of evangelical politics are must-research topics for any political strategist. In the last nine months alone several books have been published representing the right, left and center. David Gushee’s The Future of Faith in American Politics and Ron Sider’s The Scandal of Evangelical Politics attempt to articulate a centrist position. On the left, Jim Wallis has recently published The Great Awakening. This follows on the heels of his 2004 best-selling God’s Politics. Tony Perkins’ and Harry Jackson’s Personal Faith: Public Policy is an attempt to broaden the political agenda of the right.
If the statistics are accurate, nearly 25 percent of all voters consider themselves “evangelical.” This is an enormous voting bloc. Our presidential candidates in both parties are quick to mention the importance of their personal faith and the central role it plays in their lives. Following their successful conventions, they will set out over the next 60 days of their campaign to court people of faith (not just evangelicals). As followers of Jesus, we have an important opportunity to contribute to the shaping of the American story in the 21st century.
But where do we start?
First, we must begin by locating ourselves on the evangelical map (or off the map). Whether we are right, left or center, we need to know our starting point. If you have ever looked at a map of a mall without a red star that says “You are here,” you know how frustrating it is to try to find a store. The red star makes all the difference.
Second, we need to determine where we are going—our destination. The words of Jesus in the early chapters of the Book of Matthew are profoundly political: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17, TNIV). Jesus reminds us that there is a spiritual reality that overlays our political life. This spiritual reality does not negate the political, but informs and transforms our involvement in it. We are citizens of God’s Kingdom first, America second. But we are citizens of God’s Kingdom so we can be better for the world. The words of Jeremiah to the exiled Israelites in Babylon should echo in our political involvement: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).
The beauty and frustration of Jesus’ moral life was that it complicated the status quo. Which is better, to keep the strict laws of the Sabbath or to heal a man disabled for life, to stone a woman caught in adultery or redeem her from the wake of her lifestyle? Jesus was crucified as king and criminal precisely because He placed people over policies and popular theologies. He entered into the narrative of people’s lives, and people are always messy. Nothing has changed in 2,000 years. We are still messy.
Seeking the welfare of the city means entering into that mess. But it means getting dirty in a different kind of way—in the way of Jesus. We get dirty through our service to the city, not through our path to power. Instead of reacting to the social decay around us, we get dirty by trying to pioneer new solutions to social problems. We get dirty by living out our faith in public life by doing good deeds—the kind of deeds that the world recognizes as good (Matthew 5:13–16). As a community of faith, we are called to set our hope on the sovereignty of God, not on the promise of politicians. Resting in God’s care allows us to be free to make mistakes with our best political decisions. And it allows us to enter into the hopes, dreams, fears, problems and frustrations of people’s stories.
My hope for my son is that over the next 10 years he will mature beyond being a one-issue voter. I hope that he will be able to see the complex problems that our country faces and have the courage to take action—even if it means getting his hands dirty. I, on the other hand, have to vote this year. It’s going to be messy, but historic.