Beyond Red, Blue: The Church as Post-Election Healer

Beyond Red, Blue: The Church as Post-Election HealerDec. 21, 2004        

A UMC.org feature
By Marta W. Aldrich*

In wide swaths of red and highly populated pockets of blue, the 2004 presidential election map painted a nation with two profoundly different visions of America – two camps caricaturizing and even demonizing each other as either “right wing” or “the cultural elite.”

The result is a cultural divide far beyond ethnic, geographic or economic differences.

As the election closed with President George W. Bush calling for trust and U.S. Sen. John Kerry for healing, the church is left to ponder its role in the political process and, more importantly, respond to its calling as a healer and peacemaker.

Tony Campolo Photo

Tony Campolo

But amid its own struggles with deep philosophical and moral divisions over gay marriage and gay ordination, how can the church hope to be a healer of such polarizing issues in the secular world? And how can a church that cannot find common ground in the United States be a peacemaker in a terrorism-ravaged world? Or a reconciler for families broken apart by divorce, addiction or abuse?

Political analysts and theologians say one thing is clear: Despite pre-election talk of war, terrorism and the economy, moral values became the lightning rod that mobilized voters in the 2004 election – some say at the expense of the church’s autonomy because of its willingness to become a political player.

“Whenever Christianity gets involved with partisan politics, it’s like mixing ice cream with horse manure,” says Tony Campolo, author, commentator and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. “It’s not going to hurt the horse manure, but it’s going to do havoc to the ice cream.”

Partisan politics polluted the church’s identity in 2004, Campolo says. He cites, for instance, Republican Party access to many church membership rolls to mobilize voters and volunteers.

Michael S. Horton, author of Beyond Culture Wars: Is America a Mission Field or a Battlefield, agrees the church involvement in political strategy was unprecedented. “On the left and the right, there seems to be this push to use Christian faith and churches as a bulwark for a particular cultural agenda,” says Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California.

Michael S. Horton

Michael S. Horton

As a result, he says, “God is reduced to a mascot,” and the church is distracted from its primary missions of proclaiming Christ in word and sacraments, making disciples and serving as an agent of love, peace and forgiveness.

“Once you have created churches that are predominantly Republican or Democrat, you really cannot be a source for reconciliation,” Horton says. “You have already taken sides.”

Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, urges religious leaders to rethink the church’s relationship to political life. He fears the church will lose its prophetic voice by succumbing to the fleeting rewards of worldly political influence.

“These political fights and battles are not what the church exists to fight,” Haynes says. “The church exists to reconcile people to a higher truth and a higher reality. … The church has a voice that speaks for justice and for peace … for forgiveness and for repentance.”

So where does the church go from here to heal a splintered nation?

Christians first must understand and affirm religious liberty as a basic ground rule for negotiating differences with civility and respect in the United States, Haynes contends. The First Amendment guards the rights of all people, including those of other faiths or no faith. He says this freedom of conscience is consistent with the Gospel, which calls for an authentic faith, not a superficial or government-coerced faith. “The truth, left to itself, will prevail,” he says, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

Charles C. Haynes

Charles C. Haynes

That doesn’t prevent Christians from taking part in the political process individually by speaking out on policy issues and even joining political action groups, Horton says. The church is different, though. “We don’t look to Caesar to legitimize anything the church does,” he says. “… The kingdom of Christ just isn’t headquartered in Washington D.C.”

Horton warns against relying on government and political solutions to excuse Christian inaction as peacemakers and healers. “Sometimes it’s easier to speak out about high prescription drug costs for the elderly than to care for our own parents when they get old,” he says. “The realm of politics is impersonal. You don’t really heal, restore or reconcile until human beings actually face each other.”

National and international healing can begin by focusing on common concerns among people of all ideologies, Campolo says. He cites the needs of the poor, the AIDS crisis in Africa and justice for the Palestinian people in the Middle East among “the gigantic issues of our time” that most Christians can unify behind.

Campolo also urges stepping back, at least for now, from hot-button issues such as homosexuality, which he believes will not be resolved any time soon.  “While this is an important issue, it is not the defining issue,” he says.

“We have to show love, we have to show grace.” Campolo says. “And it’s about time that (the church is) more known by our grace and our love than by our rules and our judgments of one another. … And that is our common ground.”

*Aldrich is a freelance writer in Franklin, Tenn.

News media contact: Matt Carlisle, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5153 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.



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