From an early perspective in this election year, it seems that politics stands a good chance of replacing inerrancy as the issue most likely to divide evangelicals in 1980.
The fact that this is the year we elect a President has something to do with it. But what has more to do with it is that evangelicals, who are growing in number and strength to majority status, are sensing their clout. Television and other media have provided loyal and massive audiences for a number of Christian leaders. The names of some have be come household words. There appears to be an increasing feeling that it would be a shame not to use just a little of all that accumulated visibility and influence for political purposes.
The strange thing about this is that less than two decades ago religious conservatives were scathingly critical of religious liberals who were political activists. Public pronouncements by clergy men, denominations, and ecumenical committees were regularly denounced and disowned. When the "liberal" National Council of Churches issued a statement with political overtones—as it frequently did—embarrassed conservatives in and out of the Council's constituency rushed to say, "They don't speak for me!"
Now one wonders if evangelicals are little more than liberals-come-lately.
Political power has long been recognized as a seductive secular temptation. It also must be seen as a seductive religious temptation. It requires no Biblical language expert to paraphrase into our modern evangelical mood the words of Israel in 1 Samuel 8:19, 20: "We will have a king over us; that we also may be like all the nations." Simply substitute "President . . . congressman . . . senator . . . governor" for "king," and trans late "all the nations" into "power blocs."
I sense that is the mood of some of my fellow evangelicals in 1980, and it scares the daylights out of me. The Israelites discovered, after they got what they wanted, that power, even with anointed beginnings, has an unfortunate way of turning in upon and magnifying itself. I see little to convince me that evangelical power—past or present—is less immune to that kind of misuse than any other kind of power.
Failure to adopt a hard-line political position—right or left—and to mobilize behind the appropriate party or candidate seems to have become the evangelical cardinal sin. I know I already have alienated friends on both sides by declining invitations to endorse their respective positions. It is no longer enough, I have learned, to support a candidate who is simply a Christian. He or she must also carry the appropriate modifier of "liberal" or "conservative."
Fragmentation is sure to occur as support of a particular political position or candidate becomes more the litmus test of Christian authenticity than the Apostles' Creed. Surely Jesus' prayer for His disciples and for us that we might all be one did not necessarily mean pulling the same voting machine lever.
There is a subtle but real danger in this grasp for Christian power and influence, not only for those of us who are being pushed but also for those doing the pushing (and who, presumably, earn prestige credits and maybe more if their candidate wins). During Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, the devil, playing kingmaker, offered "all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them." I used to think this temptation to raw power left Jesus cold. But maybe not. Maybe He was tempted to rationalize a positive answer in the same way that some of His followers today can make it all sound so reasonable and right.
One difference between then and now is that Jesus recognized who the tempter was.
I am as scared of an evangelical power bloc as I am of any other. Worldly power in religious hands—Islamic or Christian—has hardened into more than one inquisition. That God has delivered us from the hands of zealous but misguided saints is all that has saved us at times.
Although it is not impossible to harmonize the two in some situations, there is actually a basic conflict between Christian commitment and political power. The strength of faith is in its avalanche of powerlessness, its tidal force of love. If politics is the art of achieving the possible, faith is the art of achieving the impossible. Politics says, "Destroy your enemies." Christian faith says, "Love your enemies." Politics says, "The end justifies the means." Christian faith says, "The means validates the end." Politics says, "The first shall be first." Christian faith says, "The last shall be first."
I plan to vote, and I hope you will. I will vote with care and a sense of responsibility, as I believe you will. That is all that either of us has the right, as Christians, to request of the other.
And when I get to church, I expect to be looking up at the pulpit for pastor, teacher, friend. Not for a ward heeler.