There are reports of a growing disaffection for politics among American evangelicals. This should come as no surprise.
"Values voters", many of whom pinned their hopes for cultural transformation on politics, have suffered a series of bitter disappointments. Some of these disappointments have names, not the least of which include Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Mark Foley, and Larry Craig. Additionally, the lack of meaningful progress in eliminating abortion, the collapse of the campaign to pass a Federal Marriage Amendment, the explosion of congressionally approved "earmarks", and wanton spending by the Federal legislature—all of which occurred while Republicans, of all people, controlled the White House and the Congress—have also contributed to the current malaise. There is also the matter of the war in Iraq which many feel is being prosecuted poorly by the President in whom they initially reposed great confidence.
The danger, of course, is that evangelicals, who are known to suffer from what Howard Hendricks described as the "peril of the pendulum", will abandon their engagement in the public square and retreat pietistically to their prayer closets.
Lest we forget, however, it was the fruit born of a lack of civic engagement by people of faith that propelled evangelicals into the political arena. For decades in America, there was little organized involvement by evangelicals in the public square. Politics was deemed a "dirty business." Christians were discouraged from sullying themselves with such base and worldly pursuits. Pietism prevailed over politics.
Into that vacuum crept the indicia of an increasingly secularized society—abortion on demand, an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases, public schools stripped of prayer and hostile to religious expression, to name just a few. Awakened from their slumber by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Cal Thomas, Paul Weyrich, and others, evangelicals scarcely recognized their country. The Moral Majority was born, and in its wake followed groups that proudly advertised their faith-based roots, such as the Christian Action Council, the Christian Coalition, and The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. Evangelicals became a political force to be reckoned with and provided the decisive margin of victory in a number of elections. The efforts of this brand of faith-based political engagement were so successful, the movement was dubbed the "Christian Right" by its adversaries. Intended as a pejorative term, Falwell and others wore the moniker with pride.
As the Christian Right "matured", however, it began to downplay its "Christian" distinctive. In order to achieve a more broad-based appeal, the movement increasingly described itself as "pro-life" and "pro-family." And with its increasing emphasis on direct mail, grass roots organization, and get out the vote campaigns, it became more and more difficult to distinguish the Christian Right from the rest of the political pack. The names of evangelical leaders became household words, and they were increasingly in demand as political, rather than spiritual, commentators.
Evangelicals became such a large part of the political landscape that they became known as the "base" of the Republican Party. And they became inextricably intertwined with the GOP and the Bush Administration. Now, however, the Grand Old Party has become increasingly identified with serial scandals involving pedophilia and bathroom sex, and in the wake of Mr. Bush's plummeting popularity, many evangelicals are scratching their heads and wondering how it all came to this. They are utterly embarrassed and sorely tempted to return to their prayer closets.
To do so would be a mistake.
Evangelicals would do well to remember the following:
First, notwithstanding human advances, man remains sinful and power still corrupts. There was a reason, after all, that the Founding Fathers embraced the concept of "separation of powers." They did not want to concentrate too much power in the hands of flawed human beings. They were not naïve about the nature of human beings or politics, and we should not be either. We should expect that the results of human frailty will surface in the political arena no less so than other areas of life. As James Madison observed in Federalist #51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." But even those who govern are infected with the same sin nature that caused us all to be in need of a savior.
Second, retreat is not an option. G. K. Chesterton rightly noted, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." He also pointed out that "[t]he fate of good men who refuse to get involved in politics is to be ruled by evil men." (Were he here today, I am sure that he would doubtless be gender neutral and use the word "people" instead of "men.") Human experience has proved Chesterton right over and over again. When Christians hide their light under a bushel, the world goes dark—very dark. Jesus' admonition to his followers to be salt and light is no less applicable today than when first he uttered it 2000 years ago.
Third, Christians should be committed to principle in the public square, over party or personality. Principles are timeless and enduring (that's why they are called principles!). Right principles do not disappoint. People and parties do. Principled engagement in the public square requires that we apply the same standard to both Democrats and Republicans. We should affirm members of both parties who affirm our principles and we should exhort members of both parties who don't. Double standards invite criticisms of hypocrisy and duplicity. If we consistently cling to our principles, we will have clear consciences and be able to weather any political storm.
Fourth, we must not weary in well doing. It takes time to reform a culture. We didn't get into this mess overnight and we won't get out of it quickly. William Wilberforce labored for decades to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Though mocked and ridiculed for his efforts by fellow members of Parliament and by the powerful special interests of his time, he clung to his principles and his faith. In the end, he was successful and the world was changed for the better.
Fifth, expect opposition and ridicule. The Savior encountered it. As his servants, we are not exempt from it. The servant is not better than his master. (See Matt. 10:24)
Finally, we should reflect on Jesus' example. The writer of Hebrews understood the natural tendency on the part of people who experience opposition or persecution for their faith to become discouraged. He offered a surefire antidote for discouragement by exhorting Christ's followers to "fix our eyes on Jesus…who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.… Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Heb. 12:2-3, NIV)
Tempting though it may be for evangelicals to drop out of the race and to repair to the sidelines, we must stay the course. There are many more laps to run. May God grant that when we have finished the race we will hear the words, "Well done good and faithful servant.… Enter into the joy of your Master." (Matt. 25:21, ESV)